Category Archives: Non-fiction

Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

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Milley believed January 6 was a planned, coordinated, synchronized attack on the very heart of American democracy, designed to overthrow the government to prevent the constitutional certification of a legitimate election won by Joe Biden.

Milley summarized and scribbled. “Big Threat: domestic terrorism.”
Some were the new Brown Shirts, a U.S. version, Milley concluded, of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party that supported Hitler. It was a planned revolution. Steve Bannon’s vision coming to life. Bring it all down, blow it up, burn it, and emerge with power.

The title, Peril, is drawn from President Joe Biden’s inaugural address, in which he says “We have much to do in this winter of peril…” It is the epigraph for the book. Winter is not coming. It is bloody well here, and has been here a lot longer than most folks realize. Woodward and his much younger partner, Bob Costa, national political reporter for the Washington Post, look over some of what we have endured, consider the peril we face today, and give us plenty to think about concerning what lies ahead. Biden’s speech addresses not only the threat to our democracy, but the threat to our safety from COVID variants, the cry for racial justice, and the threat to our planet from global warming. This book focuses on the threat to American democracy.

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Bob Woodward and Robert Costa – image from CNN

It rolls along on two parallel tracks. One is Trump’s attempt to illegally overturn the 2020 presidential election. The other is Joe Biden’s determination to preserve the soul of our nation, focusing on his campaign, and the first few months of his administration. The chapters alternate, more or less between Trump and Biden.

“Was that from this book?” One peril to be faced in reading this book is that of fixing what one read, when, where, and by whom, given the firehose flood of books on the Trump era. I addressed that in my review of I Alone Can Fix It. If this is of interest you can click here for a look.

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Trump’s mob assaults the Capitol on January 6, 2021 – image from Business Insider

January 6, 2021 is a date which will live in infamy. That was the day on which American democracy was nearly bombed into surrender by a sneak attack on the citadel of our national values. That was the day on which a failed Trump-led coup could easily have made moot the election he had just lost, and rendered American elections, certainly presidential elections, meaningless. It was the coming out party for an American brand of fascism that has long been an undercurrent, and sometimes much more, in our political life as a nation, a dark but always-present element in our population that Trump had recruited and encouraged for years, even before he ran for office.

It is clear that, to the extent that we will ever know all the details of the coup plot, it is likely to come from the Congressional January 6 Committee’s final report, in combination with unredacted testimony given to that committee, testimony given at what we hope will be very public trials of those in charge of the effort, and intrepid reporters. The authors count among that final group. While offering far from a complete portrait of the plot, they have given us an insider’s look at what people in the administration and the government beyond that faced on 1/6 (which I personally think should be called Desecration Day.) And what they had to deal with in the months leading up to it.

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Milley speaking with Trump – image from DNYUZ

It was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley whose intercession with his Chinese counterpart talked the Chinese military down from a concern that Trump might launch an attack on China in order to remain in office, not once but twice. As the Chinese were again concerned what our imbalanced president might do after his coup attempt failed. There was also concern that Trump would attack Iran in an attempt to secure his own position. I doubt Israel would have appreciated the incomings such an action would have surely generated. He also floated the idea of evacuating troops from Afghanistan in January, 2021, with minimal planning. Thankfully he was dissuaded from that impulse as well.

Milley is the official most in the limelight here. He was appointed to that post by Donald Trump. In Phil Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s book I Alone Can Fix It, Milley told them of his concerns about the dangers of a right-wing coup. There is plenty more of that in this book as well. We hear a lot from Trump-whisperer Lindsey Graham about his conversations with Trump, who appears to have actually convinced himself of the truth of his own lies. He is a fine representative of those who, while remaining loyal to Trump, try to counsel him to sane courses of action.

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Donald Trump pretends to check his watch as Senator Lindsey Graham speaks at the White – image and text from The Guardian

We get a look at the conversations among the cabinet level officials, unwilling to allow him to use the US military as his private army. We learn what analyses they shared about the dangers facing the nation, what agreements they came to among themselves, what steps they took, and what mistakes they made. We get a look at how these and other level-headed adults in the administration did whatever they could to keep Trump from causing irreparable harm to the nation with his impulsive-driven, self-serving, poorly-informed decision-making. Part of all this included making certain that proper chains of command would be followed should Trump decide to start a war as a Wag the Dog self-preservation move, or command the military to take actions that were illegal.

Days after the election, Trump fired Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, in large part for his public opposition to the use of the military to suppress BLM protests. It was certainly clear to those tracking Trump’s actions that Trump wanted the US military to be his personal security force, and Esper was an impediment. In fact, it was appropriate for the military to be brought to bear to battle an insurrection, and the delays in the military’s response can be traced to the Department of Defense, by then Esper-free, sitting on its hands for far too long.

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper – fired after the election – image from Reuters via BBC

One item that becomes clear from the telling here is that Mike Pence did his best to find a way to Yes for Trump, but was unable. It is also clear that Trump pushed Pence a step too far when he issued a press release claiming that the Vice President agreed with Trump’s lie that the VP had the legal right to refuse to accept the electoral votes of any state. It was the only thing, apparently, in four years in office, that generated a spine in the relentlessly invertebrate Pence, driving him into bunker mode. It is unfortunate that Pence will likely be remembered more for this single act than for his years of pathetic subservience to and enabling of an American Mussolini. It is chilling to consider that had there been alternate slates of electors ready to bring to bear, Pence might have actually done the deed. Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi called him repeatedly after the insurrection, wanting him to invoke the 25th amendment. He refused to take their calls, calling a quick halt to his vertebrate moment.

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Mike Pence flees the mob on 1/6 – image from The Guardian

The book will (it certainly should) make your blood boil. The Founders put together a guiding document and a set of rules that presumed they would be carried out by honorable officials. They did not count on the possibility of a sociopath being elected president. Someone with not only no respect, but outright contempt, for the rule of law. He really claimed, and maybe even believed in his diseased mind, like Louis XIV, who famously said “L’etat est moi,” that he, personally, was the state.

Bottom line is that when you see Woodward and Costa being interviewed about this book, or talking about the events they covered, their hair is on fire. They understand what it was that happened, namely that not only did the nation narrowly avoid a fascist coup that would have made the USA a dictatorship, but that the party of the guy who ordered it is all lined up and ready to goose-step their way to another try. We may have survived Trump’s 2021 coup attempt, but it is clear that he will try again, and there are far too many who are more than willing to go along, whether actively or passively.

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Trump with Steve Bannon – image from CNN

Now, as for the other part of this book. It should come as a salve for the angst generated by the reporting on Trump. They follow Biden’s decision to run, following the Charlottesville “good people on both sides” outrage, convinced that the very soul of the nation was imperiled, and that he could offer a way out of this very dark cloud, more so than other extant or potential candidates. We get to see a very human Biden, sincere, knowledgeable, willing to listen to well-informed and well-meant advice, willing to make needed adjustments, willing to talk to anyone, anywhere, and unwilling to be baited by Trumpian taunts and lies. We are let in to some of the family troubles the Bidens have endured, that they continue to endure. Biden is shown as the anti-Trump, an incredibly decent person, gifted at making personal contact with people, caring about people, remembering them, willing to spend unheard of amounts of time with people who could offer him nothing but their shared pain. It shows candidate Biden behaving in a presidential manner when the actual president would not. It is a warm portrait of a man the authors have certainly seen enough of to know. They also show him getting tough in legislative negotiations, and showing his exasperation when sanity, and decency, seem insufficient to accomplish a goal. The book continues into March 2021, so shows Biden as president as well as merely a candidate.

But, of course, being Washington reporters, they feel it necessary to take a swing or two. In one instance they report on Biden snapping at a reporter who was being particularly dickish as if there was something wrong with that. That Biden later apologized was the real fault here. The reporter merited being smacked down. Their portrayal was that this was a kind of gaffe. Take a moment to roll your eyes here. The Beltway media have particular story lines that they adhere to, regardless of the facts. Reporting Biden as particularly gaffe-ridden is among them. He is no more so than most other people. We all misstate things at times. But they seem eager, drooling even for a chance to catch another one and reinforce the image. Their treatment of Biden’s entirely appropriate reaction to a hostile reporter is of a cloth with that mindlessness.

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Presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden takes a picture with the Downs family after campaigning in Rehoboth Beach. – image and text from the Cape Gazette

Gripes (in addition to the one above)
As happens far too often in books of this sort, namely political history books put together largely through personal interviews, the authors sometimes slip into stenography mode. They report, presumably straight-faced, about Senate Majority, now Minority Leader Mitch McConnell trotting out his spin about tax cuts for the rich being “tax reform” and crediting Trump for an economy that had been humming along quite nicely when he took office. I call BS. They continue in this mode about McConnell working with cabinet members trying to push Trump to some semblance of normal. Take nothing McConnell reports himself saying at face value. Second-party confirmation is always needed there. Ditto for Lindsey Graham.

Former Republican and Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt issued a statement about Graham…saying that many people have tried to understand Graham over the years. He encouraged people not to look at it “through the prism of the manifest inconsistencies that exist between things he used to believe and what he’s doing now.”
Instead, Schmidt said, “The way to understand him is to look at what’s consistent. And essentially what he is in American politics is what, in the aquatic world, would be a pilot fish: a smaller fish that hovers around a larger predator, like a shark, living off of its detritus. That’s Lindsey. And when he swam around the McCain shark, broadly viewed as a virtuous and good shark, Lindsey took on the patina of virtue. But wherever the apex shark is, you find the Lindsey fish hovering about, and Trump is the newest shark in the sea. Lindsey has a real draw to power — but he’s found it unattainable on his own merits.”
– from Salon article

Graham is quoted at length here, and it is all self-serving. Douse that with salt before consuming.

Gripes, notwithstanding, Peril is an important book, another in a large library of reporting on the workings of the Trump administration, and particularly at how close Trump’s attempted coup came to succeeding.

There are many lessons to be learned here. One is that the January 6th Committee should interview, whether via subpoena or not, all the players involved in orchestrating the insurrection, including Trump, and that they need to complete their report and make all necessary criminal referrals to the Department of Justice before Republicans have a chance to regain control of the House and shut them down. We learn that the norms and rules of American government are fatally flawed, allowing the dark-hearted to game the system for their political and personal advantage. We learn that even in dark times there are officials willing to put their careers, and even their lives on the line to stand up for the ideals and institutions, that Americans claim to admire and respect. We learn that there need to be fixes made to the Electoral Count Act of 1887 to make sure that each state’s electors truthfully represent the decision of the voters.

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Attorney John Eastman, left, speaks next to Rudy Giuliani at Donald Trump’s rally on 6 January – Image and text from Reuters, by way of The Guardian – photo by Jim, Bourg

The book’s epigraph cut short Biden’s inaugural statement. The full sentence reads We will press forward with speed and urgency, for we have much to do in this winter of peril and possibility. Despite the subsequent COVID variants that have killed or damaged so many in our nation, and the world, a major relief bill made it through a very marginally Democratic Congress. Other measures are needed, but hope that more can be done remains alive, despite Joe Manchin. There are hopeful signs in many parts of the nation that democracy is on the rise.

But the forces of darkness are indeed on the march, with shameless efforts, far too often successful, to suppress the right to vote of people unlikely to vote Republican, and to seize partisan control of state vote-counting mechanisms to make sure that if that suppression is not enough there is a second way to cheat their way to victory. What we are looking at in America is the rise of a fascist party that wears the name-tag Republican. Do not be fooled. These are the same sorts of people the Allies fought in World War II. The same sorts of people who seized control of Turkey in 2016, and who have gained power in far too many nations. The same sorts of people who admire corrupt autocrats like Vladimir Putin. Woodward and Costa have offered us a look at how such people operate when they find themselves in a position of power. No law is too sacred. No act too extreme. Thankfully, they were not as organized as they needed to be on 1/6 to succeed in their goals and they do not yet have enough power to implement their dark desires. But have no doubt that should they achieve their electoral goals, fairly or not, they will usher in a new Dark Age in America.

We as a nation are in mortal danger. We need to continue reading, learning about what has happened, and what has been hidden, so that we can be better prepared for the challenges that await. Woodward and Costa’s book helps us see what has gone on, and helps us prepare, offering one Peril we should all welcome.

Five years ago, on March 31, 2016, when Trump was on the verge of winning the Republican presidential nomination, we worked together for the first time and interviewed Trump at his then unfinished Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.
That day, we recognized he was an extraordinary political force, in many ways right out of the American playbook. An outsider. Anti-establishment. A businessman. A builder. Bombastic. Confident. A fast-talking scrapper.
But we also saw darkness. He could be petty. Cruel. Bored by American history and dismissive of governing traditions that had long guided elected leaders. Tantalized by the prospect of power. Eager to use fear to get his way.
“Real power is—I don’t even want to use the word—fear,” Trump told us.
“I bring rage out. I do bring rage out. I always have. I don’t know if that’s an asset or a liability, but whatever it is, I do.”
Could Trump work his will again? Were there any limits to what he and his supporters might do to put him back in power?
Peril remains.

This review has been cross-posted, well, most of it, on Goodreads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Woodward’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Links to the Robert Costa’s Instagram and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Washington Post – Transcript: “Peril” with Co-Authors Bob Woodward & Robert Costa by Karen Tumulty – transcript of a Washington Live interview
—–The Guardian – ‘American democracy will continue to be tested’: Peril author Robert Costa on Trump, the big lie and 2024 by David Smith
—–NPR – Trump’s strategy to overturn the 2020 election didn’t work. Next time it might by Terry Gross

My reviews of other books by Bob Woodward
—–2020 – Rage
—–2018 – Fear
—–2010 – Obamas’s Wars
—–2008 – The War Within

Some other related books to check out
—–I Alone Can Fix It by Carol Leonnig and Phil Rucker
—–Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump
—–Fascism: A Warning by Madeleine K. Albright
—–Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff
—–Unbelievable by Katy Tur

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, True crime

Accidental Gods by Anna Della Subin

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Deification has been defiance: from the depths of abjection, creating gods has been a way to imagine alternative political futures, wrest back sovereignty, and catch power.

Gods are born ex-nihilo and out of lotuses, from the white blood of the sea-foam, or the earwax of a bigger god. They are also birthed on dining room tables and when spectacles of power are taken too far. They are born when men find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. Gods are made in sudden deaths, violent accidents, they ascend in the smoke of a pyre, or wait, in their tombs, for offerings of cigars. But gods are also created through storytelling, through history-writing, cross-referencing, footnoting, repeating.

Heaven knows, there are plenty of men who think they are god’s gift to humanity. For most of them we roll our eyes and pretend to see a friend across the room that we simply must go to, or vote for anyone else. Serious problems occur when the number of foolish people in a community so outnumbers those with brains that the self-deified persuades enough sheeple that he is who he imagines himself to be. History is far too rich with examples of the Badlands lyric poor man wants to be rich, rich man wants to be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything. Another, non-rhyming, way to put that last bit is that a king is not satisfied until he becomes a god. Roman emperors were notorious for this brand of nonsense. The appeal of deification is strong. A comparable theological tool has been the Divine Right of Kings, typically used to justify rule over white subjects in Europe. And nicely translated into Manifest Destiny in justifying American expansion westward. As the author notes, sometimes those engaging in apotheosis are crazy like a fox, employing a methodology that is overtly religious for a covertly political aim. Consider how so many evangelicals in the USA, led by their institutional leaders, have made common cause with the most amoral president in American history, claiming his selection by God. You really can fool some of the people all the time.

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Anna Della Subin – image from Nina Subin Photography, by Nina Subin

But there are others who find themselves regarded as divine without really trying. Anna Della Subin looks at the history of many people who have been deemed to have risen beyond the merely mortal, whether they were still alive or not. She uses a broad brush for who counts in that list.

There is no single definition of what it means to be a god, or divine. Divinity emerges not as an absolute state, but a spectrum, able to encompass an entire range of meta-persons: living gods, demigods, avatars, ancestor deities, divine spirits who possess human bodies in a trance.

I would add saints to that list, the nyads and dryads of Christianity. Surely prophets could find a cozy place on the spectrum, not to mention heroes of ancient Greek legend, intercessors called karāmāt in Islam, and how about those supposedly “chosen” by god for this or that. Many a king certainly claimed a divine right to rule. But who gets to decide who is a prophet, or a hero, or a saint? Yes, I know the RC canonizes individuals as saints for its institution, but there are plenty of candidates, deemed saints by large numbers of people, who never receive the official imprimatur. Can public opinion alone certify sainthood? Was Mother Teresa a saint before the Church hierarchy canonized her, or did she have to wait until her ticket number was called and her application stamped by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints? Point is, divinity is squishy, and often designated by popular will (with or without political manipulation) rather than bestowed by those sitting atop religious institutions.

For good or ill, most of us are touched by religion, and take on many of its beliefs, whether knowingly or by osmosis. For example, according to western religions, there are the living and the dead, and never the twain shall meet. Well, except for carve-out exceptions here and there. (for raising the debt ceiling, maybe?) Jesus pops to mind. Human? Divine? Less-filling? Tastes great? Even his mother, who supposedly died a natural death was “assumed” up to heaven, her tomb having been found empty on day three post-mortem. Thus, the rather large notion of Mary’s Assumption. And you know what happens when you assume. Not usually physical elevation to another plane of existence. But this line was not always thought to be so fixed. Even in the time of Jesus, the barrier between here and there was seen as more of a curtain than a firewall. But to us in the 21st century it seems particularly strange that people anywhere believed that human beings could become gods. (Well, I hereby offer a carve-out for Sondheim. Our Stephen, who art on Broadway, hallowed be thy name) Yet many have been deified, often without their permission, and sometimes over their considerable objections. (not The Divine Miss M, though) The Pythons were on to something in The Life of Brian. “He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.” Surely post-mortem Elvis sightings fit into this array somewhere.

Thus the folks Subin writes of here. The book is divided into a trinity of parts. In the first she covers in detail the divination of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Prince Phillip of the UK, and General Douglas MacArthur. Part I goes into considerable detail about Selassie, and it is all incredibly fascinating, including the use of his supposed divinity by Jamaican politicians for their own ends. Prince Phillip was imagined to be divine by the residents of what is now Vanuatu. It was news to him. It was likely sourced in the knowledge that he was in a position to deliver considerable physical materials to the island, so what could it hurt to feed his ego by claiming godhood for him, if there was even a chance that he might come through with some much-needed supplies. MacArthur was raised to divinity on multiple continents, and in diverse ways. If Stalin, in attempting to minimize the military impact of religion, asked How many divisions has the Pope? had substituted “Pipe” for ”Pope,” considering MacArthur’s apotheosized position, he would have gotten a very different answer.

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7 foot balsa rendering of MacArthur built to lead an army of wooden figures against dark spiritual forces – Image from University of Chicago

The section continues, noting several colonial military sorts who were raised up by third-world locals.

Part II offers many more examples of westerners being viewed as gods by the colonized. Queen Victoria is among those, although her newly exalted status did not soften her opposition to women’s suffrage. The local practice of Sati, Hindu widows immolating themselves on their late husbands’ biers, comes in for a look, as those who went through this were deemed holy.

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Annie Besant – image from BBC Sounds

There is an immersive tale of Annie Besant, of the Theosophist religion, a supposed single path to divinity, joining the beliefs of all religions, and the rise and fall and rise of Krishnamurti, a boy believed divine, who was nurtured by the Theosophists, and who would ultimately follow his own path. This is a story worthy of its own book, and Netflix mini-series.

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Krishnamurti – image from the Theosophical Library

Subin takes us into the 20th century in which there were some in India who viewed Hitler as (yet another) avatar of Vishnu, and later, according to some, Vish reappears in the person of U.S. president Dwight David Eisenhower, who might fit the bill a bit better, given that he had control of nuclear arms and could, with such god-like power, become a literal destroyer of worlds.

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Ike visits India in 1959– image from Outlook India

Subin also looks at the myth-making around the early European visits to the New World. Expedition leaders said that the locals revered them as gods, but it is quite possible, given that they did not at all speak the local patois, that the New Worlders had been significantly misquoted. She points out that the claims added heft to the already strained reasoning being crafted to justify enslaving the indigenous people and seizing their land, in seeing them as too barbaric, and simple-minded to rule over their own affairs.

This book is as much about colonialism as it is about religion. I was shocked, frankly, at how many cases Subin cites of people (usually public officials of one sort or another), being worshipped as gods in various places. Most often, in this telling, anyway, it is white colonials being raised up by the colonized. Sometimes while still with us. Prince Phillip, for example, was worshipped while still in his prime. Captain Cook, on the other hand, was seen as a deity both before and after he had been the long pig main course in a Hawaiian feast. Julius Caesar could probably relate. (Et yet, Brute?)

Subin makes a case for apotheosis being primarily a white colonial enterprise, not that Westerners necessarily went to colonial nations expecting to be worshipped, but they were more than happy to take advantage of the local predilections when it suited their needs.

She also writes about the consolidation of religions, particularly the many faiths that were lumped together under the heading of Hinduism. Animism to ancestor worship to shamanism to localized religions, to world religions seems much like the global consolidation of small businesses to large businesses to corporations to trans-national corporations in the economic sphere, and toward a similar purpose.

So, there is a huge lot to unpack in this book. And not just the specific history of humans being worshipped as something more. There is a lot in here about the whiteness infused in colonialism and the cited examples of apotheosis. There is a mind-bending discussion about whether we are people made in god’s image, and the implications of religions that hold that image as reflecting the color of their skin alone.

I have some gripes, per usual. While I loved the deep-dig stories about several of the characters portrayed here (Anne Besant, Krishnamurti, Hailie Selassie, et al) I often felt bogged down in a firehose flow of names, places, and dates where accidental god-hood took place. Reading in the more survey-report sections became a slog. Which is one reason why this review is being posted two weeks post publication, not the Friday immediately before or after. I was not exactly dashing back to my computer to read. Maybe it is like taking too large a slice of a torte, and being unable to finish it.

Some dismissive items bugged me. There is a reference early on (in the wake of the pale world’s first “internecine” war [WW I]) to WW I, which seems remarkably oblivious regarding the centuries of war waged by European nations on each other.

I also caught a whiff of what I perceived, correctly or not, as woke lecturing, with only whiteness, in the guise of the association of godliness with whiteness by the colonial powers, at fault for all the world’s ills. I make no argument with her perception of colonial whitewashing of history, but aren’t other invasive cultures worth at least a mention? Were there no examples to be found of the people subjected by the Japanese, the Chinese, by Genghis Khan, by Incas, Aztecs and other expansive cultures encountering the same sort of deification? I get the sense that she is rooting for the elimination of all authority held by Caucasians.

White supremacy will not leave us until we reject the divinity of whiteness. White is a moral choice, as James Baldwin writes. Faced with the choice, I blush and refuse.

I take issue with this. While I agree that white supremacy is of a cloth with an exclusively white divinity and that both deserve to be rejected, I feel no personal reason to blush at being white. My working-class ancestors were being exploited by their rulers in diverse European nations when Conquistadors and explorers of various maritime powers were seizing lands in the New World from the residents they found there. Horrible? Of course. But not a cause to blanket-blame white people. For the moment at least, and despite the history, which is nicely referenced in the book, of how we came to use the mislabel of race, it remains a common element of today’s world. As such, it is not a moral choice to refuse or to accept being white. It just is. And I, for one, make no apology for DNA over which I had no choice.

Gripes over, there is much in Accidental Gods that is eye-opening and fascinating, with several detailed stories that could each justify their own books, a serious examination of deification in several contexts, and gobs of unexpected information, if a bit too much at times.

Were these deified people gods? Of course not. They were human beings who were born, lived and died like the rest of us. Insisting that they are deities is some hi-test bullshit. That said, bovine droppings may smell bad, but mix them with some compost and you can make a meaningful fertilizer, a popular ingredient in terrorist explosives. And deified humans have proven quite useful in fueling many a sociopolitical crop.

It doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not; belief is not the right question to ask. As Merton wrote, “When a myth-dream is constantly in the papers and on TV, it seems pretty real!” The religion of Philip is real because it has been told and retold, by South Pacific priests and BBC storytellers, by journalists and Palace press officers, in a continuous, mutual myth-making over the course of forty years.

Review posted – December 24, 2021

Publication date – December 7, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Accidental Gods from Holt in return for my eternal blessings upon them as their rightful and all-powerful ruler. Particular blessings upon Maia for her help in arranging this miracle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Subin’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Item of Interest from the author
—–London Review of Books – Several Subin pieces for LRB

Items of Interest
—– General MacArthur among the Guna: The Aesthetics of Power and Alterity in an Amerindian Society

—–The Guardian – 11/27/21 – ‘There was a prophecy I would come’: the western men who think they are South Pacific kings by Christopher Lloyd
—–George Carlin: Stand Up About Religion

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Filed under History, Non-fiction, Religion, World History

The Social Leap by William von Hippel

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…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

…lying is a uniquely human form of social manipulation that requires substantially greater cognitive sophistication. To tell a lie is to intentionally plant a false belief in someone else’s mind, which requires an awareness that the content of other minds differ from one’s own. Once I understand what you understand, I’m in a position to manipulate your understanding intentionally to include falsehoods that benefit me. That is the birth of lying.

William Von Hippel’s The Social Leap looks at the crucial importance of our social evolution as we developed from australopithecines to Homo erectus to the Homo sapiens of today. The first phase was cutting out dependence on

Trees – come on down, why don’t ya. Of course, it was more like an eviction than an option, as changes in the environment made it necessary to descend to find greener pastures, or savannahs, actually. (Sure sounds like being kicked out of Eden to me, going from top tier predator to prey, leaving a verdant, arboreal life for a world of danger). And once our great-great-grandparents had been forced down, there was a clear advantage to

Bipedalism – stay up on those legs, and get a better view over the tall, tall grass, big guy. It might give you a heads up on those incoming lions. Of course, that took many millennia to evolve. Those who succeeded at walking on all twos lived to breed and make more little two-steppers. As we no longer had the need to climb, well, constantly anyway, those lower limbs could be re-focused on locomotion.

If we had not become bipedal, we almost assuredly would never have learned to throw so well, in which case the social-cognitive revolution that made us human might not have happened, either.

The physical realignment that resulted over hundreds of thousands of years is why we have creatures like Jacob deGrom walking the earth. It allowed them to do something their predecessors could not, throw things, rocks in particular, but I expect whatever was lying about would do, which came in pretty handy when something with large claws and teeth was coming at them. But being able to hit a moving strikezone from a distance was not, in and of itself, sufficient. It took something more to turn this rather huge change into a formidable force,

Cooperation – Instead of running in all directions from an incoming large kitty, they learned to join together with their fellow homo saps and throw rocks at the invaders. Voila, y’all get to live another day, or at least until the next predator attack, (and you might even get a nice meal out of the exchange) but that is a lot better than it might have been had you not joined together. This confluence of the ability to throw and the ability to throw as a group at a specific target, allowed humankind to claim the throne (iron?) of apex predator. Think of those films about medieval battles in which a phalanx of archers launches five hundred arrows at the enemy at once. More effective than a single archer, no? The only things we needed to fear, as a group, were other groups of Homo erectus.

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William von Hoppel – image from Singularity University

This combination is a major element in what separates us from our forebears (which sounds uncomfortably ursine in this context) in the primate family tree, cooperation, and learning to kill at a distance. It is not that no other species cooperates, but there is no species that has done so to the astronomical level of Homo sapiens. And that initial cooperation, for self AND group protection has led to a world of change. Also, no other species has mastered the art of long-distance defense, or offense, depending, perhaps the greatest advance in military technology ever.

That change is manifest in the considerable size of our brains. Much larger than our Australopithicus, erectus, habilis, and all our early ancestors. Did we gain our cranial advantage from having to invent methods of coping with the world? von Hippel says not. He argues that most of the cause of our sudden boost in gray matter occurred because when we opted for cooperation for self-defense, that blossomed into cooperation across a passel of other matters as well, and created a social species, and that very pact of cooperation forced us to change.

…dealing with fellow group members is a much greater mental challenge than manipulating objects. For this reason, many scientists have adopted the social brain hypothesis, which is the idea that primates evolved large brains to manage the social challenges inherent in dealing with other members of their highly independent groups.

Cooperation may have been born out of a need for self-defense, but it broadened to form the basis of a community. Instead of only ever thinking of personal survival, our orientation was changed to having to consider the needs of the group at least as much as our own needs. So cooperation within the group was paramount. Anyone found to be slacking in doing their bit to support the group, piss enough of the group off, for whatever reasons, and you would likely be tossed out on your loincloth, and make a fine meal for a large local predator. Ostracism = death = no more babies for you = how natural selection externalizes those whose behavior leads to their death. But there was still

Competition within the group for mates. Von Hippel points out that mate choices were largely driven by females, who had a far greater amount at risk than any male. It is not really so different today, even to the physical characteristics that we find attractive in a mate. And then there was competition with those outside the group, which led to a not groundless

Hating/Fearing of the outsider, the other. When we evolved to the apex predator point that the only real threat to the group was from other groups of Homo erectus, we became particularly wary of outsiders. Not only might they attack us militarily, maybe take prey and other foods in our hunting domain, but they could make us ill. One does not need to have a theory of microbes to learn from experience that contact with certain groups is likely to result in illness. This inclination to be wary of anyone outside our group, however that may be defined, has certainly flourished in our DNA and in our social organizations. Thus racism, xenophobia, and bigotry of all sorts. Part of the development of our groups, clans, tribes, et al, was the development of a

Theory of Mind, meaning a desire, and some ability to see what is in someone else’s mind, gauge what they are thinking, even if the people of that time had no such grad school terminology. They learned to evaluate what other people were thinking and learned how to turn that knowledge to their advantage. The methods for accomplishing this make considerable use of

Lying and Exaggerating

But most of our smarts are going be dedicated to jockeying and manipulating our position among others. And if that’s the case, then the truth is only semi-important. If I can convince you of a world that’s actually favorable to me, then I can get you to back down in conflicts or defer to me when you really shouldn’t; that is a form of power. – from the Vox interview

Sound like something that might be relevant today? Even with our predilections we are not creatures of instinct. Unlike other animals we do not carry inside us a set of instructions on how to get by in the world. And our brains are not even ready to take in the information until we have been around a relatively long time. So we must be taught. Our urges, our impulses will still be there, but we do not have to yield to them. At least 50% of who we are, what we do, is the product of choice, and education. As a result, our genes may not be able to order us around, but they are ever-present, and bossy.

The tale revs up big time when it gets to the beginning of agriculture. I will leave that, and it’s very relevant look at the beginnings of contemporary society, for you to discover for yourself. It explains a lot.

Von Hippel certainly makes a strong case for our cranial ballooning being more the result of having to cope with other people, rather than from having to invent things. We are social creatures, who are both inclined toward cooperation, but also primed for competition, for mates and against outsiders. Thus the aphorism All’s fair and love and war.

This book was written as an attempt to help explain why we behave today in the ways that we do. What evolutionary basis might there be for those behaviors.

…potential ancestors who wandered the woods in the moonlight were less likely to survive and procreate, and thereby less likely to pass on their proclivity for midnight strolls. This is how evolution shapes our psychology, with the end result being that no one needs to tell you to be afraid of the dark; it comes naturally.

There are plenty of roots to be found here to the forest of our current world. Many of the ancestral behaviors described in this book were waaaaay too familiar. I found that throughout the book, while the socio-psychological evolution of humans was totally fascinating, I kept flashing specifically to the politics of today. So much of what von Hippel writes of offers an understanding, or at least some insight into the psychology of politics in the time of Trump. Don’t mistake me, I am not saying this is an anti-Trump screed. It is not. But some of what is in here makes understandable what seems singularly opaque about the motivations of any true Trump (or any other demagogue or authoritarian) supporter (those who are not cynically supporting Trump in order to accrue personal gain in some specific way). As in, how can any sane person buy into Trump’s transparent stream of lies, xenophobia, and demagoguery? There are plenty of group-think practitioners on the left as well, but those tend not to have guns, or to bother, ya know, voting, or threatening to kill people. But the innate need for the approval of the group makes it possible that people will believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of objective truth, and that is a very difficult barrier to breach. Von Hippel may make this dynamic more understandable, but it makes it no less frightening and disheartening.

The similarities between ancestral and contemporary mate selection preferences was quite interesting, as is his discussion of leadership styles, contrasting the styles of those who rule for all (elephants) with those who rule only for themselves (baboons), as is his discussion of how a division of labor enabled early man a great ability to do well in the world, as is his explanation for the basis of politeness.

This is very much a pop-psychology book, aimed at a general audience. It is eminently readable, and offers brain candy of the first order. Von Hippel cites his sources (including his own research) for the sundry opinions offered, without leaving one struggling with obscure charts or mathematical formulae. He is an excellent writer with a friendly, familiar style that will make the information go down very easily. I recommend checking out some of the videos linked in EXTRA STUFF, to get a feel for how he sounds as a lecturer and interviewee. He comes across very much the same in the book. Von Hippel is absolutely the prof you want for your psych classes.

You will not have to get an ok from your group to go ahead and check this book out. The Social Leap will expand your brain, without you having to wait a few hundred thousand years. That counts as real progress.

Of all the preferences that evolution gave us, I suspect the desire to share the contents of our minds played the single most important role in elevating us to the top of the food chain.

Review posted – December 17, 2021

Publication date – November 13, 2018

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Von Hippel was born, raised, and educated in the USA. He taught at Ohio State and Williams College for over a decade. He has been teaching and conducting research in evolutionary social psychology in Australia for more than twenty years, since 2006 as a professor at the University of Queensland. He lives in Brisbane with his family

Interviews
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters By Sean Illing
—–The Covid Tonic – Autism and Innovation – 2:03
Most folks. Because we are inherently social creatures, will seek social solutions to presenting problems. But people who are much less socially adept, those on the autism spectrum, for example, will, as a group, turn more to technical solutions to problems.
—–Owltail – There are several audio interviews available here
—–Vox – Why humans evolved into such good bullshitters – by Sean Illing
—–London Real – What Women Look for in Men – 3:32
—–London Real – WILLIAM VON HIPPEL-THE SOCIAL LEAP: Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy Part 1/2 – 45:37 – begin at 3:20

Items of Interest from the author
—–The Evolutionary Origins of Human Culture – Von Hippel offers a lecture on the origins of culture
—–The Royal Institute of Australia – Seven Deadly Sins: Lust – Is Love Blind? – Bill von Hippel – 26:38 – on how physical differences between males and females result in psychological differences as well, the impacts of testosterone, selecting long-term mates, and the significance of menopause

Just in case the ones linked here are not enough, there are many videos of the author being interviewed or delivering lectures.

Item of Interest
—–Five Early Hominids – Introduction to Hominids

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews, Science and Nature

Fiddling While America Burns – I Alone Can Fix It – Carl Leonnig and Phil Rucker

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Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who worked in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and closely studied many presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, said, “I have spent my entire career with presidents and there is nothing like this other than the 1850s, when events led inevitably to the Civil War.

Here’s the deal, guys: These guys are Nazis, they’re boogaloo boys, they’re Proud Boys. These are the same people we fought in World War II,” Milley told them. “Everyone in this room, whether you’re a cop, whether you’re a soldier, we’re going to stop these guys to make sure we have a peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren’t getting in.”

I did not intend to write a full review for this one. It came out in July. I did not start reading it until August, and did not finish reading it until late September. That is what happens when I read a book on my phone, in addition to the two I am usually reading, one at my desk and the other at bedtime. But I was going to offer a few thoughts. Typed a line or two and then my fingers started pounding away at the keyboard pretty much all on their own. I astral projected myself to the kitchen to whip up a sandwich, make some tea and when I returned they were still banging away. I am sure there is a lesson in there about compulsion.

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Phil Rucker and Carole Leonnig – image from Porter Square Books

There have been, currently are, and no doubt will continue to be many books written about the Trump years. I Alone Can Fix It tracks the final year of Trump’s presidency, notes that he had faced no major problems until 2020, and then proved incapable of managing the ones that presented, seeking only his own aggrandizement, while clinging to power at all costs.

If you read books of this sort all the time, if you read The Washington Post, The New York Times, or other world newspapers, watch CNN, BBC, MSNBC, and other at-least-somewhat-responsible news sources, much of what is in this book will not be all that surprising. In tracking Trump’s 2020+, I Alone Can Fix It offers inside looks at the actions and discussions, the conflicts and challenges inside the White House, almost day-by-day. Much that is detailed here has been reported before. And a lot of the new material has been outed in leaks to newspapers and TV political shows. Interviews with the authors chip away even more at the new-ness of the material, if you are coming to it any time after its initial week or two of release.

Trump’s rash and retaliatory dismissal of [Acting DNI Joseph] Maguire would compel retired Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden, to write: “As Americans, we should be frightened—deeply afraid for the future of the nation. When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security—then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.“

I am betting it is not news to you, for example, that when 1/6 was happening, Liz Cheney screamed at Trump toady Jim Jordan (who, as a wrestling coach at Ohio State University, had participated in a coverup of sexual abuse of wrestlers within the program) “Get away from me. You fucking did this.’” Or that Trump wanted to use the army to put down demonstrations in American cities. Or that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Milley was concerned that Trump wanted to use the American military to keep himself in office.

Carol Leonnig (National investigative reporter focused on the White House and government accountability) at the Washington Post and Phil Rucker (Washington Post White House Bureau Chief) are top tier political reporters. They sat with many of the principals in the administration, including Trump, and amassed a vast store of materials in pulling this tale together. It is a horror story. In doing so they have unearthed considerable detail that did not make it to the pages of daily reporting. It is a portrayal of Donald Trump as someone who is generally disinterested in the well-being of the nation, concerned only for himself, which comes as a surprise to exactly no one with eyes to see and an ability to reason.

I take issue with the clearly self-serving nature of some of the interviews. Spinners are gonna spin and twirling is the name of the game in Washington politics. Bill Barr, for example, attests to his devotion to the law. How Leonnig and Rucker allowed such tripe into the book is beyond me. This from a guy who routinely politicized the Department of Justice to subvert justice, seek punishment of Trump enemies (otherwise known as truth-tellers) and neglect to trouble those accused and even convicted of crimes. Puh-leez. He also pretends that he was practically dragged from retirement to serve as AG when, in fact he had actively campaigned for the job. Sure wish they would have called him out on that steaming pile of poo.

Esper, Milley, and Barr—were tracking intelligence and social media chatter for any signs of unrest on Election Day. They and their deputies at the Pentagon, Justice Department, and FBI were monitoring the possibility of protests breaking out among supporters on both sides. The trio also were on guard for the possibility that Trump would invoke the Insurrection Act in some way to quell protests or to perpetuate his power by somehow intervening in the election. This scenario weighed heavily on Esper and Milley because they controlled the military and had sworn an oath to the Constitution. Their duty was to protect a free and fair election and to prevent the military from being used for political purposes of any kind.

Plenty more seek to burnish their records (the phrase polishing turds pops readily to mind) for history, eager to remove the fecal stench of attachment to the most corrupt administration in American history. I could have done with a bit more of Leonnig and Rucker pointing out for readers where the spinning ends and the truth begins.

One of the heroes of this story is General Milley. Were his actions not confirmed by multiple other sources, one could be forgiven for suspecting that he was polishing his own…um…medals in reporting to Leonnig and Rucker his role in staving off Trump’s desire to use the military to suppress domestic dissent, and in working with other defense leaders, legislative leaders, and foreign military brass to help prevent what could easily have become a shooting war with China. But what he told them checks out. The man deserves even more medals, pre-shined.

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General Mark Milley – image from New York Magazine

One of the things that is most remarkable for its absence in this book is mention of Afghanistan. Really? That deal with the Taliban was not worth including? It makes sense, though. The MSM paid little attention to it when the deal was made, and largely ignored the fact that the actual Afghani government was not a party to the talks. They were more than happy, though, to jump on Biden’s back for implementing the shitty treaty by actually getting our troops out of an endless no-win war. Trump was rarely mentioned, and the awfulness of the deal, THAT TRUMP HAD NEGOTIATED, rarely merited serious coverage. Disappointing that Leonnig and Rucker seem to have skipped over this in their book. It was significant.

It is an avocational hazard for those who consume political news in mass quantities that when there are so many books out about aspects of the same thing, namely the Trump disaster, it can be difficult to impossible to keep track of where particular stories originated. Also, each of the Trump era books is heralded in the press in the weeks leading up to publication with the juiciest bits from the opus du jour. The cacophony of revelations can make it impossible to discern the altos from the tenors from the sopranos from the basses. It all becomes one large chorus. Did I read about that in this book or that one, or that other one? Maybe I heard a piece about it on CNN, or BBC, or MSNBC, or one of the traditional network news shows.

And no sooner does one finish one of these books that there are ten more peeping for attention like baby birds in a nest far outnumbering the worms their poor parents are able to scrounge. Thus, we get by with the news and political talk show interviews and daily early peeks at the books, hoping to be able to read at least enough of these things to get a clear picture.

Like AI learning systems, there is a constant feed of information. At some point (although hopefully one has already achieved such a state) one internalizes the incoming stream, somehow manages to sort and categorize it, finds some sort of understanding and can use the collective intelligence to face new questions, problems, and situations with an informed base of knowledge, and generate a wise, informed decision, or opinion. At the very least we should have a sense of where to look to check out the latest claims and revelations.

“A student of history, Milley saw Trump as the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose. He described to aides that he kept having this stomach-churning feeling that some of the worrisome early stages of twentieth-century fascism in Germany were replaying in twenty-first-century America. He saw parallels between Trump’s rhetoric of election fraud and Adolf Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior.
“This is a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides. “The gospel of the Führer.”

To that end, the Leonnig and Rucker book is a welcome addition to the ongoing info-flow. We live in dangerous times, and they offer some of the nitty gritty of how the sausage is made, how the perils are generated, and sometimes averted, who the players are and how they acted in moments of crisis.

In the long run it probably does not matter if you heard the relevant information in this book, in a Woodward book (I am currently reading Peril) or in one or more of the gazillion others that have emerged in the last few years. What matters is that we get the information, that it is brought to us by honest, intelligent, expert reporters and/or participants, and that it is presented in a readable, digestible form. Leonnig and Rucker are both Pulitzer winners. Keep your eyes out for any irregularities, of course, but these two are reliable, trustworthy sources. Add their work to your data feed and keep the info flowing. We need all the good intel we can get to counteract the 24/7/365 Republican lie machine and to face down the next coup attempt. Knowledge is power. Acquire it. Learn from it. Remember it. Use it.

Review posted – 12/3/2021

Publication date – 7/20/21

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Carol Leonnig’s WaPo profile and Twitter pages

Links to Phil Rucker’s Instagram, WaPo profile, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Face the Nation – “I Alone Can Fix It” authors say former president learned he was “untouchable” from first impeachment – video – 07:46
—–The Guardian – Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by David Smith
—–Commonwealth Club – Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker: Inside Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by Yamiche Alcindor – video – 57:01
—–NPR – Fresh Air – Investigation finds federal agencies dismissed threats ahead of the Jan. 6 attack – audio – 42:00 – by Terry Gross – more about Leonnig’s book Zero Fail but worth a listen

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – Day of Rage: How Trump Supporters Took the U.S. Capitol– By Dmitriy Khavin, Haley Willis, Evan Hill, Natalie Reneau, Drew Jordan, Cora Engelbrecht, Christiaan Triebert, Stella Cooper, Malachy Browne and David Botti
—–Washington Post – The Attack: Before, During and After – Reported by Devlin Barrett, Aaron C. Davis, Josh Dawsey, Amy Gardner, Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman, Peter Hermann, Spencer S. Hsu, Paul Kane, Ashley Parker, Beth Reinhard, Philip Rucker and Cleve R. Wootson Jr. — Written by Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman — Visuals and design by Phoebe Connelly, Natalia Jiménez-Stuard, Tyler Remmel and Madison Walls

Items of Interest from the authors
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles
—–Washington Post – list of recent articles

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, History, Non-fiction, Public Health, True crime

Fuzz by Mary Roach

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…I…follow along behind a small group of conservation officers heading to the lawn outside. Their leather hiking boots squeak as they walk. “So she looks in her rearview mirror,” one is saying, and there’s a bear in the back seat earing popcorn.” When wildlife officers gather at a conference, the shop talk is outstanding. Last night I stepped onto the elevator as a man was saying, “Ever tase an elk?”

Mary Roach is up to her old tricks. A science writer now publishing her seventh book, Roach has written for many publications, including National Geographic, Wired, NY Times Magazine, and many more. She begins with a notion, then goes exploring. Roach tells Goodreads, in a book-recommendation piece, that she came across a potential story about cattle breeders staging deaths to commit insurance fraud. She even had a grand theft avocado story lined up, but the local Smokeys would not let her come along, which was a requisite. She shifted to wildlife.

I paid a visit to a woman at the National Wildlife Service forensics lab who had authored a paper on how to detect counterfeit “medicinal” tiger penises. – from the GR piece

Wait! What? (there is link to the study in EXTRA STUFF, of course) But again it was nogo accompanying the officers into the field. Really? Her presence would blow a National Wildlife Service raid on a market selling junk johnsons? It is pretty easy to come up with a descriptive for such unwarranted reticence. (Rhymes with sickish.) In any case, in her investigative travels, Mary came across a weird 1906 book about the prosecution and execution of animals and realized she had her hook. What if animals were the perpetrators of crimes instead of people? She breaks the book down into “criminal” categories, homicide, B&E, man-slaughter, larceny, even jaywalking, and off we go.

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Mary Roach – image from Lapham’s Quarterly

First, and foremost, I need to let you know straight away that you will be laughing out loud at least every few pages. This is not an experience I have with any other writer, and yet have had it consistently with Mary Roach, across the several books of hers that I have read. Ditto here. Well, fine, your sense of humor may not be like mine, but Mary has the key to my funny-bone.

Her intro offers a stunning representation of just how stupid people have been when attempting to enforce laws on animals over the course of history. Python-worthy material, totally side-splitting, and jaw-dropping. Really, they actually did that? Yes, gentle reader, they totally did.

On June 26, 1659, a representative from five towns in a province in northern Italy initiated legal proceedings against caterpillars. The local specimens, went the complaint, were trespassing and pilfering from people’s gardens and orchards. A summons was issued and five copies made and nailed to trees in forests adjacent to each town. The caterpillars were ordered to appear in court…Of course no caterpillars appeared at the appointed time, but the case went forward anyway.

It goes on. Would have been tough making a charge stick anyway. They would have just blamed each other. It was that caterpillar, not me. I was nowhere near that orchard. And even if they were jailed they would have just flown out anyway. The law may be a ass, far too often, but sometimes it truly boggles the mind.

As usual, Mary interviews experts in all the areas she investigates. She begins her contemporary explorations with a gathering of Canadian Conservation officers (in the USA) getting Wildlife Human Attack Response Training or WHART. They don’t, but you go right on ahead and call it what it is, CSI-Wildlife – DUUUUUM-DA-DUM! Mary brings plenty of funny to her reporting, but a lot of it is simply laying out the facts and letting them make you laugh themselves. For example, the test manikins are named for brands of beer. Good one, eh? And there is that quote at the top of the review. You will also learn some real-world intel like the significance of a round versus a more oval drop of blood at a crime scene.

As usual with Mary, you will find yourself learning a whole bunch of information you never knew you wanted to know, like how to tell the difference between a bear and a cougar kill. (No, not that sort of cougar, the one with fur and claws, a mountain lion, Geez! and no, no, no, not that sort of bear, creatures of the Ursus genus, not those other large hairy beasts. Stop that right now!) She considers issues with elephants, leopards, cougars, bears, macaques, gulls, vultures and other birds, rats and mice, trees, and beans. Come again?

The lines here get a bit vague. It is not just animals that are the focus but some non-critter-based elements of nature as well. Sticking with critters for the moment, there are considerable challenges in managing the interface between people and animals. For instance, the vig that farm mice seem to extract from farmers regardless of what is done to get rid of them can turn peaceable crop-growers homicidal. Mary looks at the control methods that have been tried, and explores a promising, more laid-back approach.

Rats in the Vatican (which is an outstanding name for a band, just sayin’) present the challenge of managing the property while taking seriously the lead of Saint Francis of Assisi, an animal rights figure of long-standing, and a major inspiration for Pope, ya know, Francis. Mary talks to the guy in charge of this problem (I could not help but imagine Father Guido Sarducci, sorry), the Vatican Director of Gardens and Garbage, Rafael Torning. The considerable Vatican rat population has a taste for wires, and damages a lot of machinery. VG&G does what they can, trying to avoid using nasty chemicals. But even so, aren’t there ethical concerns? So, she talks with the house bioethicist, Father Carlo. Let’s just say that if you could count the number of angels on the head of a pin, Father Carlo could very nicely twist all of them into pretzels with his words.

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A possible solution to half of the Vatican’s Gull-and-rats problem? – image from the Irish Sun

The Vatican has a considerable problem with herring gulls as well, thousands of ‘em. None of this Mary Poppins Feed the Birds nonsense. The feathered rabble that descend on Saint Peter’s seem more like the gathered horde in that Hitchcock movie. You will not come away from this book fond of gulls. I found her lapsed-Catholic’s tour of the Vatican to be worth many, many indulgences, rich as it was with fun details and ambience.

Chapters on elephants and leopards are particularly alarming.

…when a leopard stalks and kills more than three or four people, villagers consider it a demon. – [it, clearly, considers them takeout]

There was one historical case in which a single leopard killed over a hundred people. Mary travels with government and non-government people as they try to educate local populations in best practices for avoiding potential conflict. Not all leopard attacks are the same. You will learn the sorts. And not all attacking leopards are handled the same way. She looks at changes that have been at least partially implemented to try to reduce the carnage. (Indoor toilets, for example), and the challenges going forward in handling the problem, getting leopards to leave people alone.

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Leopard – image from Wild Cats India

When it comes to elephants, Mary Roach knows her shit, literally. She reports on a Smithsonian project that measured daily defecation by an Indian elephant. A poop scooper will not do. Maybe a poop plow? 400 pounds, give or take, per diem. Elephants loom large as a danger, laying waste to crops, trampling fields and bulldozing buildings. People are sometimes accidentally trampled. Sometimes it is no accident, as when one elephant did a headstand on someone. A bull elephant in an elevated period of breeding excitement, called musth, is particularly aggressive and a mortal peril. She can also tell you about the effectiveness of small arms against big pachyderms. Keep your powder dry. Most bullets do little or no damage. Even a bit of armor-piercing ordnance intended for tanks needs a follow up to get the job done.

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Indian elephant in musth – image from Wikipedia

Monkeys in India come in for a look. Macaques in particular, have made pests of themselves in urban areas, becoming aggressive thieves, to the point of violence, and even of extortion, as some will steal your phone, handing it back only when you pay the fee in food. Government officials struggle to come up with solutions, tough in a place where the monkey is a sacred animal. It is impossible to deliver directed doses of birth control without endangering other native wildlife, for example. Roach delivers a bleak portrait of official finger-pointing and inaction.

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Street Monkeys in India – image from Outlook

While reporting on the damage done to area farms and people, and the impact of wildlife in places populated with humans, Roach does point out that a lot (all) of these conflicts result from people expanding into the native territory of dangerous or potentially pestiferous, animals.

I was surprised that there were parts of the book dedicated to non-creature natural perils. The material is interesting, but thematically it felt a bit off the central topic.

There is much surprise information (well, for me anyway) about “danger trees,” those fully grown trees that have come to the end of their lives, at least in terms of growing. They still serve as useful woodland citizens by providing places in which creatures can nest, wood in which bugs can live, biomaterials that will be absorbed back into the woods. This is all good, but there is still one problem. The rotting tops of these gentle souls can come crashing down on passers-by, unaware of the peril. The approach that is taken, by woodland managers makes one wonder whether it is better to yell “Timber” or “Fire in the Hole!”

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Decay throughout this tree makes it too hazardous to fell with a saw. It was felled with one bundle of fireline explosives taped to the side of the tree – image and text from the US Forest Service

There is an element in this book that you should be aware of. The disposal of animals considered pests. This is of particular relevance in places where invasive species have arrived and laid waste to significant segments of the local fauna, and/or flora. Not all of these are the usual suspects, stowaway rats wiping out bird populations with their fondness for eggs, brown snakes, ditto and far too many others, often foolishly introduced by people attempting to counteract an earlier invasives problem. Some of the invaders are adorable and not on your likely list of things that MUST BE EXTERMINATED NOW. Mary looks at the techniques attempted (usually failed) and on the thought that goes into trying to make a creature’s passing as quick as possible. You might want to skip that chapter (14). Many of my daily companions are on that list and, although I did read it all, it was disquieting at times. Just lettin’ ya know. I hope this does not turn you off the book if you are otherwise interested.

She does focus on ways in which people can live in coexistence with nature. This includes a greater understanding of the deer-in-the-headlights syndrome, and a workable approach for reducing roadway carnage.

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Deer in the headlights – image from Bryans Blog

I have issues with the titling of the book. The raised-patch addition to the hardcover jacket goes very nicely with the patches my wife and I picked up at many US National Parks. Mary might have called it Nature Gone Wild, but that was already taken. Naming it Fuzz, though, (maintaining the tradition of single-syllable Mary Roach book titles) does make it seem like it is about the police-type officials who are charged with coping when forces of nature interfere with people. Although there were indeed some badged officials in her stable of interviewees and guides through these fascinating worlds, she spoke as often with people who were researchers or administrators, and the stories were about the problems, not so much the law enforcers. Many may be related to parks here and there. Some were employed by wildlife services, but it just did not sit well with me. Her reporting is as much about a wider view of the issues as it is about the direct, Book-em, Danno “crimes” supposedly perpetrated on people by the furry or feathered set. So, I will not shy away from this. When it comes to actually describing what the book is about the title is decidedly fuzzy. There. I did it, and I am not sorry. Well, ok, maybe a little. Not that I can come up with anything better, just whining.

That done, it is clear that wherever Mary Roach shines her light there will be surprises, there will be new knowledge, and there will be smiles, lots and lots of smiles, covered with copious quantities of laughter. Follow along behind Mary as she opens some closed doors, peeks into some hidden corners, and pesters defenseless officials to find fascinating, wondrous real-world material. Even despite that one grim chapter, I found myself reacting as I always do to a Mary Roach book, laughing out loud, often, very, very often. There is a definite joy in trailing after Mary as she shines her very bright light into unseen corners and calls back “Hey guys, come see what I found!” If you have enjoyed her books before, this one should do quite nicely. There is nothing fuzzy about that at all.

Feeding animals, as we know, is the quickest path to conflict. The promise of food motivates normally human-shy animals to take a risk. The risk-taking is rewarded, and the behavior escalates. Shyness becomes fearlessness, and fearlessness becomes aggression. If you don’t hand over the food you are carrying, the monkey will grab it. If you try to hold onto it, or push the animal away…it may slap you. Or bite you. The Times of India put the number of monkey bites reported by Delhi hospitals in 2018 at 950. [When your teenager makes off with your car, just remember that it all began when they were small, and you made the mistake of offering them food]

Review posted – October 29, 2021

Publication date – September 21, 2021

I received this book from Barnes & Noble in return for cold, hard cash

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and Twitter pages

Interviews
—– Mary Roach Discusses Craft & Humor in Science Writing With the Northwest Science Writers Association with Hannah Weinberger and Ashley Braun of Northwest Science Writers Association – video – 1:05:08 – Covers her entire career
—–Commonwealth Club – Mary Roach’s Fuzz: When Nature Breaks the Law – with Kara Platoni – audio – 1:04:44 – a lot of fascinating material in this one – more focused on this book
—–Bookpage – Mary Roach – Hot on the trail of nature’s outlaws by Alice Cary
—–Goodreads – Mary Roach’s Highly Unusual True Crime Recommendations

Other Mary Roach books we have enjoyed
—–2016 – Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War
—–2013 – Gulp
—–2010 – Packing for Mars
—–2006 – Spook
—–2004 – Stiff

Items of Interest
—–National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory – Distinguishing Real Vs Fake Tiger Penises – Where it all began for Mary re this book – You know you’re curious – yes, there are illustrations
—–The Guardian – Vultures who came to stay bring year of acid vomit and toxic feces to small town by Adam Gabbatt – Geez, talk about pests!
—–NY Times – Indians Feed the Monkeys, Which Bite the Hand by Gardiner Harris

Songs/Music
—–Mary Poppins – Feed the Birds – Julie Andrews

Scrabble Words – from the book, to weaponize against family and friends in the game
–—-frass – insect excreta – white powder that appears on trees (Not a birch! Please do not lean there.)
—–kerf – space left by a saw-blade cut in a tree (not necessarily by a man wearing a leather mask)
—–kronism – the eating of one’s offspring (named for Saturn. Did not work out well for him, though)
—–musth – a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants characterized by highly aggressive behavior and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. (from Wiki) (aka Friday night?)

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Filed under Non-fiction, Reviews, Science and Nature

A Legend in His Own Time

book cover

Daniel Boone had always despised, and would for the rest of his life, his outsize reputation as an Indian fighter. He maintained that dealing with belligerent Native Americans, whether via combat or negotiation, was for the most part a matter of luck and instinct. His rescue by Simon Kenton was evidence of the former, his quick thinking on the Licking River, the latter. He was vastly more proud of his ability to endure the burdens of a huntsman’s life with a seemingly preternatural stoicism. Now, it was as if the patience he had honed over a lifetime of stalking game through the deep woods was in anticipation of this moment. He would need that gift in the coming months.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite possessions was a bona fide, official Davy Crockett coonskin cap. No actual raccoons suffered to create that bit of headgear. Disney had made several live-action films in the 1950s (TV mini-series’ really) celebrating Davey Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Crockett may have actually worn one that wild creatures suffered to provide. Daniel Boone preferred beaver hats. Although Crockett and Boone were born a half-century apart their deaths were separated by a mere sixteen years. But to young TV viewers in the 1950s the two seemed inseparable, played on the screen by the same actor, Fess Parker, wearing pretty much the same costumes, no doubt saving Disney some wardrobe expenses.

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Fess Parker – image from the California Wine Club

The memories I retain of the shows are much-faded, but I doubt much has been lost. Civilized American good guy frontiersmen (Crockett) or pioneer (Boone) doing battle with hostile indigenous residents, and battling corruption among his own people. Standard TV fodder of the 1950s and early 1960s, with the usual doses of humble wisdom, and little mention made of the genocide that was being foisted on sundry North American native peoples.

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Bob Drury – image from Macmillan

It was the chance to fill that cavernous memory hole with some actual information, on at least one of Fess Parker’s greatest roles, that drew me to Blood and Treasure. On finishing the book, it was possible to drop a coin into that chasm and hear it hit bottom, after a reasonable wait, much better than hearing nothing prior.

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Tom Clavin – image from The Southampton Press

There is history and there is Boone. It is the information on both that is of great value here. Those of my generation at least know the name Daniel Boone, even if our image of him may have been the product of Disneyfication. I expect there are many, born later, to whom the name Boone is likelier to summon images of a baseball figure, a town or city by that name, or a brand of sickly alcoholic beverage. He was a fascinating real-world character, whatever hat he chose to wear. The authors report in the C-Span interview that, unlike Parker’s cinema-friendly 6’5”, Daniel Boone was actually 5’7” or 5’8,” a typical height for a man of his times. He had several cousins, however who were over six feet and Boone was concerned that a raccoon skin cap would make him look even smaller. He favored a felt hunter’s hat that was made of beaver.

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A child’s “Davy Crockett” hat – image from the Smithsonian

The character himself is fascinating, presenting both as a man of his era, and a person with some 21st century sensibilities. Daniel Boone was born in what is now Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1734, the 6th of eleven children, to Quaker immigrants from England and Wales. The family ran afoul of local public opinion when one of their children married outside the religion, while visibly pregnant. When another, Boone’s brother, Israel, also married outside the faith, and dad stood by him, Pop was excommunicated. Daniel stayed away from the church after that. Three years later the family moved to North Carolina. While Boone carried a bible with him on his long hunts, considered himself a Christian and had all his children baptized, he was not exactly a bible thumper. He was open to other ways of viewing the world. This willingness to learn would serve him well. Boone was fascinated by and respectful of Indian ways as a kid. He spent considerable time with Native Americans, studying their culture, and learning their woodland hunting, tracking, and survival skills. He learned the birdsongs of local avian life, studied the use of plants for medicinal purposes, learned Indian crafts. He was a proficient enough hunter that by age twelve he was providing game meat for his family. His gift for frontier life was clear very early on. In a way he was a frontiersman savant, like those 7-year-olds who play Rachmaninoff as if it’s no big deal. By fifteen he was considered the finest hunter in the area.

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Daniel Boone by Alonzo Chappel – circa 1861 – From the National Portrait Gallery, via Wikimedia

He had considerable respect for his wife, Rebecca, maintaining impressive wisdom about their relationship. After he had been away on a long hunt, for a year, for example, he returned home to be presented with a new daughter. He could count high enough to figure that the child was not his. Rebecca told him that she had thought he was dead (not an unlikely excuse at the time) and had fallen for someone who looked very much like Daniel, his younger brother. Daniel coped, noting with an impressive sense of humor that he had married a full-blooded woman, not a portrait of a saint, raised the girl as his own, and was grateful that Rebecca had at least kept it in the family.

He confronts many personal challenges over the years, losing several children (he and Rebecca had ten) to illness or Indian attacks. The book opens with the torture and murder of his teenage son, James. He is called on time and time again to work with militia or government military units. He served with the British in their conflict with their French rivals for North American influence. He was a part of many of the conflicts that took part in the western colonial lands in the late 18th century. I had not heard of any of these. Drury and Clavin point out their often very surprising significance.

Boone was not initially cast to star in this novel. Drury and Clavin, with more than a few history book pelts in their saddlebags, had written about the wars waged on the plains Indians, many of whom had been pushed west by the advancing white invaders, and wanted to trace that process back. The book covers, roughly, the period from the 1730s,when Boone was born, to 1799, when he moved his family west to Missouri. The book was supposed to be about how the Indians had been driven out of the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. In doing their research, however, Boone kept turning up, a Zelig-like character, involved in many of the seminal events of his time. Served with a British regiment? Check. Served with George Washington? Check. Developed the primary trail through the Cumberland Gap? You betcha. He even established a town that would be named after him, Boonesborough, and led the defense of a western fort, the loss of which might have changed the outcome of the American Revolution. The man really was a legend in his own time. A natural leader, he partook of many of the important battles that occurred between settlers, through their militias and their English backers, and both the native people they were attempting to displace and their French allies. He functioned as a diplomat as well, respected by many of the Indians and seen as a man of his word, not a common attribute at the time. And so he became the narrative thread that pulled together a large number of related, but disconnected parts.

The frontier in the 18th century was the Appalachian Mountains. The Wild, Wild West was the land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. The English had entered into treaties with Indian tribes that basically drew a line there. We will allow our colonists to advance only so far, and no farther. The colonists, however, were more than happy to roll their eyes, mutter a “whatever” or the 18th century equivalent, and continue pushing westward, making life difficult for just about everyone. I was reminded of contemporary settlers, eager to occupy land outside their legal realm. At least some of this westward movement was driven by land speculation, including by some founding father sorts. I know it is tough to believe that real-estate developers might be anything other than sober, law-abiding capitalists, but, like the poor, it appears that we will always have them with us.

Drury and Clavin offer a look at the diverse tribes that occupied the areas in conflict, showing differences among them. One particularly horrifying episode involved a group of Indians who had converted to the Moravian faith, a sect of Christianity. They were pacifists, took up no arms, but were slaughtered anyway by a group of American Rangers in what became known as the Moravian Massacre, a shameful episode, widely talked about at the time. We also see leaders of one tribe, in negotiations, willingly ceding land to their white counterparts, when they, in fact, had no hold over that land at all. I was reminded of the contemporary situation in Afghanistan, among other places, where tribal allegiances easily trump larger national demands. Many of the most effective, and memorable of Indian leaders are shown, impressive in their tactical leadership, creativity, and tenacity.

The American Revolution was more an eastern than western conflict, but there were times when battles on the western frontier might have determined a different outcome to the colonial attempt to separate from the motherland. These were mostly, no, they were entirely, news to me.

It is in learning about so many of these turning points that the value of the book is most manifest. If, like me, your knowledge of American history has been shaped primarily by what we learned in grade school, high school, and college, and absorbed from popular culture, you will get a very strong sense of just how much we do not know, and had never suspected. In a way, it was like opening up the back of a mechanical watch and seeing all the intricate gears at work, impacting each other to produce the simple result of indicating the time of day. Getting there is not so simple. Nor is truly appreciating how 21st century America came to be what it is today. This book offers an up-close look at some of those gears.

My reading experience of this book was wildly divergent. I found it to be a very difficult read for the first half, at least, dragging myself through anywhere from ten to thirty pages a day for what seemed forever. Even then, I recognized that there was a lot of valuable information to be absorbed, so stuck with it. It is true that there are a lot of characters passing through these pages, a bounty of place names, a plethora of battles, skirmishes, and conflicts that were significant and interesting. But it felt so overwhelming that the TMI sirens were blaring repeatedly.

But at a certain point, some of the characters, through repeated appearance, became recognizable. Oh, yeah, I remember him now. Wasn’t he the one who…? Yep, that’s the guy. At a certain point it was not a duty to return to the book, fulfilling a felt obligation, trying to learn something, but a joy. Quite a switch, I know. But as I read the latter half of the book, it became clear that this was not just a rich history book, but quite an amazing adventure story, a saga, filled with deeds heroic and dastardly. There are many compelling characters in these pages, and so many ripping yarns that reading this became like sailing through something by George R. R. Martin. Taking the analogy to the next step, I have zero doubt that, with the many compelling narratives at play in this book, it would make a fantastic GoT-level TV series. It certainly has the blood and gore to play at that level, the territorial rivalries, the vanity, backstabbing, the double-dealing, the battles, sieges, murders, tortures and war crimes, but also the underlying content to give it all a lot more heft. This is how nations are created. This is how they grow. These are the people who paid the price for that creation. These are the decisions that were made, the promises broken and kept, the lies told, the excuses offered. Sorry, no dragons, or other mythical beasts, but there is, at the core, a bona fide legend. (James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohican was inspired by Boone rescuing his kidnapped daughter, Jemima) Thankfully, it will require no blood for you to check this one out, and only a modest amount of treasure.

Like the Cherokee, the tribes north of the Ohio River strongly suspected that America’s War for Independence was being fought over Indian land despite high-minded slogans about taxation without representation. It was the Shawnee who recognized the earliest that this internecine conflict among the whites could only end badly for the tribe should the rapacious colonists prevail. Native American support of the Crown, in essence, was the lesser of two evils. It was not the British, after all, who had begun desecrating Kanta-ke with cabins and cornfields.

Review posted – May 21, 2021

Publication date – April 20, 2021

I received this book as an e-pub from St Martin’s Press via NetGalley in return for a fair review. No raccoons, beavers, or other wildlife were harmed providing headgear used during the writing of this review.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Bob Drury’ personal site, and to Tom Clavin’s personal and FB pages

Items of Interest
—–C-Span – Interview with Drury and Clavin – video – 50:08 – This one is all you will need
—–Gulliver’s Travels – Boone’s favorite book
—–National Museum of American History – The saga of Davy Crockett’s coonskin cap
—–Wiki on the Moravian Massacre
—–Wiki for Last of the Mohican
—–Gutenberg – full text of Last of the Mohicans

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Reviews

The Babysitter by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan

book cover

”Close your eyes and count to ten,” he whispered. I felt his breath on my cheek. The barrel of the gun was hard and cold against my forehead.
I counted, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

I sat up quickly in bed, gasping, my body soaked with sweat. What the hell was that?

Thus begins The Babysitter, a telling of growing up unaware that one of the author’s favorite adults was not who she’d thought.

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Liza Rodman – image from Simon & Schuster – Photo by Joel Benjamin

In 2005, Liza Rodman, then in her forties, was working on the thesis for her undergraduate degree when she began having frequent nightmares. It was not her first such experience. She had had these for a long time, but all of a sudden they were happening every night. In one, her husband was trying to kill her with a fireplace poker. Another featured a man killing nurses and eating their hearts. The dreams kept coming, with a faceless man chasing her, always with a weapon. She would wake up as her dream self was about to crash through a window, fleeing for her life.

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Jennifer Jordan – image from her site – photo by Jeff Rhoads

Clearly there was motivation to figure out this puzzle, so she started writing about them, incorporating them into her thesis, over a two year period, drawing out more and more details. One dream-site was The Royal Coachman motel where she, her mother, and sister had lived for a time in Provincetown. Another was Bayberry Bend, a P-town motel her mother had owned.

Slowly the process moved along, six months of regular dreams, more images, months more of nightmares, until she saw the face, a familiar one, someone she hadn’t seen since she was a kid, a handyman hired to work at the motel where her mother was employed. His mother worked at the motel too. He was one of a series of people who took care of her and her sister, a really nice guy, one of the few adults who were kind to them, who never yelled at or hit them, who took them around with him in the motel’s utility truck, on chores, to the dump, to his garden in the woods, but who had disappeared when she was ten. This was not all that unusual for the adult males who scooted through her childhood. Why would she be having dark dreams about that guy? So she decides to ask her mother, then in her 70s, what this might all mean.

“Did something happen to me back then that you’re not telling me?” I said, suddenly wondering if it did.
“What do you mean, happen to you?”
“With Tony Costa.”
“Tony Costa? Why are you still thinking about him?”
“I wasn’t until I had a nightmare about him.”
She was quiet for a moment too long, and I stopped stirring and waited. Mom rarely paused to contemplate her words, so I watched, curious as to what was going to come out of her mouth.
“Well,” she said, watching the gin swirl around the glass. “I remember he turned out to be a serial killer.” She said it calmly, as if she were reading the weather report.

Oh, is that all? Not all that surprising from Betty. Liza’s divorced mom was not exactly the best. While she did manage to keep body and soul together for herself and her two girls, she was frequently cruel to Liza, for no reason that the child could fathom. Mom, in fact is a major focus of the book, as chapters flip back and forth, more or less, between a focus on Tony and a focus on Liza and her relationship with her mother.

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Antone Charles “Tony” Costa, Provincetown handyman and murderer of four young women. (Photo courtesy Barnstable County Identity Bureau) – image from the author’s site

Who was this guy? Tony Costa never got to know his father, who had drowned trying to save a fellow seaman in New Guinea near the end of World War II, when Tony was only eight months old. He would be obsessed with his war hero dad for the rest of his life. There were early signs of trouble with Tony. At age seven he claimed to have been visited regularly by a man in his bedroom at night, an actual intruder? a fantasy? an obsession? He said the man looked like his father. He stood out among his peers during summers in Provincetown, his mother’s birthplace, cooler, smarter, and more “inside himself” than anyone else, according to a kid he hung out with there. Then there was the taxidermy kit. Lots of killing of small animals, neighborhood pets going missing, yet never a successful display of a stuffed animal. There is no mention of bed-wetting in his psychopath Bingo card, but who knows? We know he was raped as a pre-teen, and was probably one of several victims of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Provincetown. So his potential for madness certainly had some outside assistance. He was accused of attempting to rape a young girl as a teen.

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Jen and Liza, Northampton, 1979 – image from Rodman’s site

Tony was smart and handsome, but had terrible judgment, a ne’er do well, capable at work but unable to hold onto a job. He became a heavy drug user and local dealer. Clearly this guy had some charisma (as well as a considerable supply of illegal substances) and a way with young teens. A pedophile who married his pregnant fourteen-year-old girlfriend, he kept a crowd of young acolytes around him unable or unwilling to see through his line of distilled, grandiose, narcissistic bullshit. Cult-leader stuff. There is a Manson-like quality to him. And, like most narcissists, he was never willing to accept any responsibility for his own actions, always insisting that people were out to get him, blaming others for things he had done.

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The VW Tony stole after murdering its owner. A local spotted it in the woods and notified the local police, which spelled doom for Tony Costa – image from the author’s FB pages

There is more going on here than personal profiles of the major actors. A lot is made of how different from the mainstream Provincetown was, particularly during the tourist season. The ethos was much more accepting of whatever than most places. With people coming and going so much, it was custom-made for a predator. It was the 60s, man, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, and kids taking off for adventures, whether drug-related or not, and thus not necessarily raising instant alarms when they went missing. In 1971, for example, I bought an old Post Office truck at auction for three hundred bucks, and drove across country with three friends. (well, tried, we never actually made it across the continent) No cellphone, no regular check-ins. We didn’t exactly file a flight plan. If we had come to a bad end, no one would have known, or been alarmed back home for weeks. This is something a lot of people did. Of course, we were not runaways, and we were not female. That would have been a whole other order of business. The cops in Provincetown took a lackadaisical attitude toward worried parents looking for missing progeny. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they will turn up in due time.” And they were probably right, mostly. Except, sometimes they weren’t. It took a lot of pushing from those concerned about the missing young women to get the police to pay much attention. Rodman and Jordan provide a very detailed look at the various police departments that became involved in Tony’s case, both the occasional good police work and the ineptitude of inter-departmental communications. Sound familiar?

The locals were slow to allow for the possibility that there was a killer in their midst. Even today, there is an urge to protect one of their own, despite it being fifty years since the events of the book.

“I got threats when I wrote this book,” Liza says. It’s a loving portrait of the town, but not especially flattering. “I have a comfort level there that I don’t have anywhere else. Even in the face of this book.” – from The Provincetown Independent

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It was her sister’s 8th birthday. At the moment Liza was making a face at the camera, Tony was leading two young women into the Truro woods, where he would murder and bury them. – image from the author’s FB pages

One of the things about true crime books is that there is an element of suspense that is lacking. We know that little Liza will grow up to write this book, so we know that Tony did not kill her. This makes it more like a Columbo episode, knowing that the bad guy will get got, but enjoying seeing how that ultimately happens. That said, this is not a straight-up true crime effort. It is a fusion of true crime with memoir. Half of the book is about Liza’s childhood, her relationship with her mother in particular. It is an interesting look at how someone can survive a bad parent-child relationship. Showing how things were for Liza at home makes her a more sympathetic narrator for the other story. Geez, ya poor kid. I sure hope nothing else bad happens t’ya. And it makes it much more understandable how a kid who was starved for adult affection and attention would be drawn to an adult who was offering kindness and interest.

I did not get the frisson of fear reading this that pervaded in another true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Maybe because the killer in this one was long ago jailed, whereas the California killer had not yet been arrested when that book came out. But there is a certain vertigo, like walking near a cliff edge, blindfolded, only to realize the danger you were in when you take it off. It is distinctly possible that Liza might have found her way into Tony’s special garden if he had managed to stay out of jail for a few more years. Liza was like the little girl playing with Frankenstein’s monster in the movie, not realizing that he was more than just a large playmate, and seemingly friendly soul. Whew!

Rodman had been working on this project for about thirteen years. It happened that, in 2018, Jordan, a professional writer, was casting about for her next book project (She had previously published four books.) when she thought of her dear friend, Liza, (they had met in college) who was thrilled at the suggestion that they collaborate. So, sixteen years of research in all and here it is. An in depth look at a monstrous series of events, a sick individual, an interesting place in a time of upheaval, a difficult childhood, an odd friendship, and a very close call. The Babysitter is an engaging, informative read that will make you appreciate your sane parents, most likely, and appreciate your luck even more in never having had such a person as Tony in your life. (You haven’t, right?)

His coterie of teenagers, his stash of pills, and his marijuana helped mask his ever-increasing feelings of inferiority; by surrounding himself with idolizing acolytes who needed a hero, he could feel more in control, sophisticated, confident, and, of course, more intelligent.

Review posted – March 5, 2021

Publication date – March 2, 2021

I received an ARE of The Babysitter from Atria in return for an honest review. I did not charge them my usual rate of ten bucks an hour and whatever I want to eat from their fridge.

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Liza Rodman’s ’s personal, FB, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Links to Jennifer Jordan’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Red Carpet Crash – February 24, 2021 – Interview: Authors ‘Liza Rodman And Jennifer Jordan’ Talk Their Book The Babysitter: My Summers With A Serial Killer – audio – 17:02 – definitely check this one out
—–New York Post – February 27, 2021 – How I discovered my babysitter Tony Costa was a serial killer by Raquel Laneri
—–The Provincetown Independent – February 24, 2021 – Remembrance of Serial Murders Past by Howard Karren
—–WickedLocal.com – February 23, 2021 – In new memoir, local serial killer Tony Costa babysat two youngsters by Susan Blood

Items of Interest
—–Frankenstein playing with sweet young Maria
—–Columbo – or substituting for whodunit the howchatchem
—–My review of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Songs/Music
The author’s site provides a link to a considerable list of 39 songs mentioned in the book. But you have to have a membership to hear the full songs on Spotify instead of just the clips that are available on Rodman’s site.

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews, Thriller

Featherhood by Charlie Gilmour

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Like a bird flying repeatedly into a pane of glass, I kept seeking Heathcote. Each time I reached out for him, the crack yawned open just a little wider, until eventually. I hurtled straight through.

How do you let go of someone you never had?

Charlie Gilmour was living in southeast London when his partner’s sister came across an abandoned chick.

Magpies leave home far too soon—long before they can really fly or properly fend for themselves. For weeks after they fledge their nests, they’re dependent on their parents for sustenance, protection, and an education too. But this bird’s parents are nowhere to be seen. They’re nor feeding it, or watching it, or guarding it; no alarm calls sound as a large apex predator approaches with footfalls made heavy by steel-toed boots. It could be no accident that the bird is on the ground. If food was running short, a savage calculation may have been performed, showing that the only way to keep the family airborne was to jettison the runt.

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From infancy to adulthood – From Charlie’s eulogy for Heathcote –photos by Polly Sampson and Charlie

This small bird with a huge personality caught his attention. Charlie’s struggles to care for, to raise, this raucous magpie parallels his growth as a person, and his lifelong struggle to get to know the man who had abandoned him as a chick months-old baby, his father, a well-known poet, artist and playwright. Heathcote Williams, for a brief period in his life, had likewise nurtured a corvid, a jackdaw, bequeathed at a country fair by a pair selling pancakes, fulfilling
an old boyhood dream
Of having a jackdaw on your shoulder, like a pirate.
Whispering secrets in your ear

Charlie seizes on this connection when he discovered the poem his father had written about the experience.

“Initially it was just meant to be a light-hearted story about this magpie that came to live with me, roosted in my hair, shat all over my clothes and stole my house keys. When my biological father died, though, it became a much, much more complicated story. Honestly, I really didn’t know what the book was about until I was quite far into the writing process.” – From the Vanity Fair interview

Williams was quite a character, a merry prankster, a Peter Pan sort, grandly creative but not the best at responsibility, able to charm all those around him, doing magic tricks, persuading people that he really was there for them, while never really being able to handle the demands or needs of the people who needed him most, leaving domestic carnage in his wake. Charlie had never really understood why, one day, he suddenly just got up and flew the coop on him and his mother, Polly Samson. This memoir tracks Charlie’s quest to make sense of the father he never really knew.

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Charlie Gilmour and his beloved magpie Benzene – image from Vanity Fair – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie lucked out in the parent department in another way. When Mom remarried, it was to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame. None of David’s music career is addressed here. But he is shown as a stand-up guy, a supportive, understanding, and loving father who takes Charlie under his wing by adopting him.

Absent fathers are hardly uncommon. In 97 percent of single parent families, it’s the mother who ends up taking responsibility for the kids. The child’s impulse to seek them out is just as widespread: psychiatrists call it “father hunger”. I was lucky: I was adopted, and the man who became my dad is both a brilliant man and a brilliant parent. But the longing to know your maker is something that lives on. – from the Public reading Room piece

We follow the growth of Charlie along with Benzene. It is made clear early on that a magpie presents both challenges and delights that are uncommon in human-critter relations. Tales of bird behavior that might have one pulling out hair in clumps (which might actually be useful, as the bird stores food in Charlie’s hair) are told with warmth, and, frequently, hilarity. My favorite of these occurs when Benzene is under the sway of a nesting instinct, having settled on the top of the fridge as a place on which to construct her DIY nest. At a birthday party for her:

My dad strums her a song; my younger sister reads a poem; and a family friend, a venerable literary academic named John, unwillingly provides the sex appeal. This rather reserved man of letters is too polite to do anything but quote Shakespeare as Benzene places her birthday bluebottles and beetles lovingly up his sleeve and tugs the hem of his trousers insistently nestward.

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Heathcote Williams planning one of the Windsor free festivals in his Westbourne Park squat, London, in 1974 – Image from his obit in the Guardian – Photo by Richard Adams

Charlie’s nesting life is also under development. After he marries his partner and they talk about growing their family, he must confront his fears of being a parent himself. Nature vs nurture. Will he be the absentee his biological father was, or the rock-solid mensch of a parent he lucked into in David Gilmour? Clearly a concern that requires some resolution before going ahead and fertilizing an egg. The issue extends to a question of mental illness. Heathcote had been ill-behaved enough to get institutionalized. It was certainly the case that his behavior often crossed the line from eccentric to certifiable. Did Charlie inherit his father’s proclivities? Is genetics destiny? Charlie had committed some behavioral excesses of his own, consuming vast quantities of illegal substances, which fueled some extremely bad behavior. This landed him on the front pages of the local tabloids, swinging from a beloved and respected war memorial during a protest, and then in prison.

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Charlie with David Gilmour – image from The Guardian – photo by Sarah Lee

Charlie takes us through the attempts he made for many years to connect with Heathcote, but his father offered only teases of interest, always managing to disappear before Charlie could latch on, a hurtful bit of legerdemain.

In addition to the title, the names, which largely focus on feather development, given to the five parts of the book, set the tone. All the expected imagery is used throughout, including fledging to nest-building, to mating behavior, to molting, egg-laying and so on. It could easily have been overdone, but I found it charming. In rooting about in Heathcote’s history Charlie offers us, in addition to his personal tale, some of Heathcote’s outrageous adventures from back in the day. Charlie’s personal growth as a person adds heft.

I was reminded of a few other memoirs. In Hollywood Park, musician and writer Mikel Jollett tries, a lot more successfully than Charlie, to connect with his missing father, confronting issues of nature vs nurture. Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk looks at her training a goshawk as a coping mechanism to help in grieving for and remaining connected to her late father, similar in feathery subject matter, although it is quite a different book. Alan Cumming, in Not My Father’s Son, looks at the damage his father had done to him, trying to figure out how this mercurial man had become so cruel, as Charlie tries to figure out how his mercurial, if not overtly cruel, father had become so nurturing-phobic. John Grogan’s Marley and Me looks at the difficulties of caring for a difficult pet, and the corresponding rewards.

It is not necessary to love the memoirist to enjoy their book, but that is not an issue here. Charlie behaved rather poorly, both as a child and an early twenty-something, but learned his lesson, grew up, straightened out, and became a likable, decent sort, a very good writer who is very well able to communicate the struggles through which he has grown. It is easy to root for him to get to the bottom of what made Heathcote tick, and to find a way to make peace with what their minimal relationship had been. His writing is accessible, warm, moving, and at times LOL funny. You will need a few tissues at the ready by the end. Just for padding your roost, of course.

In the Archive, the sour smell of mold is somehow even more overpowering than it was at Port Eliot, as if the material is rebelling against the light. At the end of each day I come away filthy, sneezing, and feeling lousy—but I keep going back for more. I need this. My approach is far from methodical. I attack the body of words and images like a carrion bird, looking for the wound that will yield to my prying beak, the original injury that unravels the man. I peel back layers of skin, pick over the bones, snip my way to the heart of the matter. A patchwork biography begins to emerge; a rough story told in scavenged scraps. It feels almost like stealing, like robbing the grave, except it’s not the treasure that interests me. Heathcote’s glories get hardly a glance. It’s the traumas I’m searching for. Answers to those same old questions. Why does a person disappear? What makes a man run from his child? Why was Heathcote so afraid of family? What forces guided that nocturnal flight in Spring so many years ago?

Review posted – February 19, 2021

Publication date – January 5, 2021

I received an ARE of this book from Scribner in return for an honest review. No feathering of nests was involved. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC for bringing this to my attention. You know who you are.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–The One Show – The One Show: Elton John meets Charlie Gilmour
—–David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’ – Charlie and David Gilmour on their relationship and history
—–Bookpage – Charlie Gilmour: From feathers to fatherhood by Alice Cary
—–Vanity Fair – Birds of a Feather. Interview with Charlie Gilmour by Chiara Nardelli Nonino

Songs/Music
—–Donovan – The Magpie
—–The Beatles – Blackbird

Items of Interest from the author
—–Vogue – What Raising a Magpie Taught Me About My Famous, Troubled Father
—–Waterstones – a promo vid for the book – 1:52
—–5×15 Stories – Featherhood – a story about birds and fathers
—–The Guardian – ‘One spring morning my dad vanished’: the son of poet Heathcote Williams looks back
—–Public Reading Rooms – Heathcote Williams: Eulogy to the Dad I never knew
—– Charlie’s articles for Vice

Items of Interest
—–BBC – My Unusual Life | The Man Who Lives With a Magpie – a short doc on Charlie
—–Wiki on Pin feathers
—–The Guardian – David Gilmour: ‘I’ve been bonded to Charlie since he was three. We were incensed by the injustice’
—–Straight Up Herman – an arts journal blog – Being Kept by a Jackdaw – Heathcote Williams’ poem

Other memoirs of interest
—–Hollywood Park by Mikel Jollett
—–H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
—–Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
—–Marley and Me by John Grogan

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Filed under Bio/Autobio/Memoir, biography, Non-fiction, Science and Nature

Land by Simon Winchester

book cover

This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. – from Chief Sealth’s letter to President Pierce on a treaty giving much of what is now Washington state over for white settlement

What are the three most important things in real estate? All together now, “Location, location, location.” Simon Winchester, in his usual way, has offered us a grand tour of land, and thus real estate on our planet. Note the subtitle, How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World). This is not the broker’s walk-through in which the good elements are highlighted while the less appealing aspects are minimized or ignored. It may be that location is the most important property of land, but there are other features that are worth knowing too. Things like How much land is there? How do we know? How was it measured, by whom, and why? Is the amount of land fixed? Can it increase or decrease? Can land be made unusable? Where is everything? Who can make use of it? Is land inherently public, for (reasonable) use by all? Was it ever? How did it come to be private? How do different cultures think about land? Why is land divided up the way it is, into public and private, into parcels of particular size? Who gets to own land, and who is relegated to merely renting it? Winchester has answers.

Land is the defining characteristic of every nation. Our (the USA’s) national anthem, for example, goes “O’er the land of the free” not o’er the pond, lake, river or fjord of the free, (and no, Norway’s anthem makes no specific mention of fjords), not the sweet air of the free, not the great views of the free (although “spacious skies” and “purple mountain majesties” from our other national anthem, America the Beautiful, comes close), but the land. Check your nation of choice for common ground re this. (Click for a list of anthems) The word “land” figures prominently. Although I suggest you check out the Algerian lyrics. Dude, switch to decaf. The war is over.

Land is seminal in human culture as well as national history. For many of us in the West, our very origin story begins with a landlord-tenant dispute. “If we owned the garden instead of renting it, Adam, I could have eaten the goddam apple and it would have been nobody’s business but my own. And we wouldn’t have to put up with the creepy landlord spying on us all the time, or his freaky feathered bouncer. The guy should get a hobby, make some friends or something.”

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Simon Winchester at home in his study in the Berkshires – image from The Berkshire Eagle – Photo: Andrew Blechman

This is the eighth Winchester I have read, of his fifteen non-fiction books (so, plenty left to get to) and they have all been engaging, informative, and charming. He read Geology at Oxford, so, has a particular soft spot for explaining how physical things on our planet came to be where they are, how they changed over time, and why they exist in the forms they have taken on. You might be interested in the Atlantic Ocean, maybe the Pacific? Winchester has written a book on each. How about looking at the creation of the world’s first geological map, or maybe why Krakatoa blew its top. He is also interested in tracing back how we know what we know, (or, um, history) as a crucial element of understanding things as they are now, and how they came to be. The Perfectionists looks at how industrial standardization developed, and how machine tolerances improved to the point where they are beyond the control of flesh and blood humans. In The Professor and the Madman he looks at how the Oxford English Dictionary was made. The third element in Winchester’s trifecta of interest is people, often odd personalities who played pivotal roles in the development of technical and intellectual advances, thus expanding and deepening human understanding of the world.

I think what I’ve done is to get obscure figures from history and tell the stories like I’ve told you about Mister Penck and his maps, Mister Struve and his survey, Mister Radcliffe and his line, and turn them into what they truly are, which is heroic, forgotten figures from history….I just become fascinated by these characters. – from the Kinukinaya interview

There are plenty of interesting sorts in Land. Maybe none of the folks noted here are quite so interesting as the institutionalized murderer in The Professor and the Madman, but they are still a colorful crew, and it is clear Winchester had fun writing about them. They include Cornelius Lely, who built the 20-mile-long Barrier Dam in The Netherlands, which turned the Zuider Zee into vast tracts of arable land, Gina Rinehart, the world’s largest private landholder, not someone who has contributed nearly so much to the store of human knowledge as she has to conservative politicians, and Friedrich Wilhelm Georg von Struve, who spent forty years measuring a meridian for the tsar of Russia. There are many more, of both the benign and dark variety.

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land. — Desmond Tutu

There are surprising connections made, such as the relationship between the invention of barbed wire and America’s appetite for beef. Or the link between the growth of commercial aviation and the development of World Aeronautical Charts, well maybe not so surprising, that. But that such things did not exist prior to people flying the friendly skies reminds us just how recent so much of the foundation of today’s world truly is. I suppose it also might not count as surprising, but John Maynard Keynes had an interesting solution to the problem of landed gentry, euthanasia.

Winchester details many of the outrages that have been inflicted, in the name of seizing land, on indigenous people across the planet, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA figuring large in these. But there are also plenty of other people who have been expelled from their homes, livelihoods, and history by the forces of greed across the planet. These include immigrants to the USA whose land was stolen while they were illegally incarcerated, and farmers who were dispossessed by land-owners seeking to maximize the profitability of their holdings, via the Enclosure and Clearance laws passed in England and Scotland. Then there are the perennial turf battles, like those in Ireland and the Middle East.

Gripes are, per usual with any Winchester book, minimal. He writes about the role, historical, current, and potential, that trusts have, had, and might have for the preservation of land from destructive exploitation. Yet, in doing so, there was no mention of The Nature Conservancy. Their motto could be (it isn’t) We save land the old-fashioned way. We buy it. It has over a million members (yes, I am) and has protected about 120 million acres of land. It definitely merited a shoutout here. Another part of the book tells of the annihilation of bison from the American west. The critters are referred to as multi-ton. Like the mythical eight hundred pound gorilla which grows only to about 400 pounds at most, bison max out at roughly 2,000 pounds, or a single ton, which still leaves them as the largest land mammal in North America.

Like any good geologist, or writer, Simon Winchester enjoys digging. And we are all the lucky recipients of the informational nuggets he unearths. He is a master story-teller, and if you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself at a party with him, or find a chance to see him speak publicly, just pull up a seat and listen. You won’t be sorry.

So, I can tell from the looks on your faces that this one would be a perfect fit for you, particularly if you are planning to start a library soon. Do you think you’d like to make an offer on the book? There are other potential buyers stopping by this afternoon, and I would hate for you to miss out. It won’t stay on the shelves very long. Take my card and give me a ring when you make up your mind, ok. But I can assure you that, whether your preferences for land are LaLa, Never, Sugar, Holy, Promised, Wonder, Native, or Rover, when you check out Simon Winchester’s latest book, you will be a Land lover.

We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1948)

I could say that Winchester covered a lot of ground in this book, but really who would write such a thing? I suppose one might say that he planted a flag on his subject matter and claimed it for his own, and if you don’t like it, you can get the hell off his lawn. Not me. Nope. Nosiree.

Review first posted – February 5, 2021

Publication dates
———-January 19, 2021 – hardcover
———-January 18, 2022- trade paperback

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

A nice overview of Winchester’s professional life can be found here

Interviews
—–Kinokuniya USA – Interview with Simon Winchester on ‘Land’ – video – 30:03 – by Raphael – This is wonderful. The interview is a lot like SW’s books, one fascinating story follows another follows another.
—–RNZ – Simon Winchester: how land ownership shaped the modern world by Kim Hill – text extract plus audio interview – 48:24
—–The Book Club – Simon Winchester: Land – audio – 42:46

Songs/Music
—–Woody Guthrie – This Land is Your Land
—–The Lion King – This Land
—– LaLa Land – soundtrack

Reviews of other Simon Winchester books we have read:
—–2018 – The Perfectionists
—–2015 – Pacific
—–2010 – Atlantic
—–2008 – The Man Who Loved China
—–2005 – Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
—–2001 – The Map That Changed the World
—–1998 – The Professor and the Madman

Items of Interest – by Winchester
—–From 2013 – Simon Winchester at TEDxEast re his book The Men Who United the States – There is an interesting morsel here about 11 minutes in on an important Jeffersonian decision having to do with land ownership
—–American Scholar – Experience Everything

Items of Interest
—– Citizen Simon: Author, journalist, OBE, sage of Sandisfield by Andrew D. Blechman – Posted on September 9, 2018
—–International Map of the World
—–The Nature Conservancy

An extra bit. I had intended to incorporate the following into the body of the review, but just felt off about that. Nevertheless I do hold with the notion expressed, so here it is, tucked away at the bottom:

I was taken with a particular instance of the horrors that accompanied land grabs in the expanding USA, as having resonance with today, with Donald Trump as the embodiment of that carnage. Whereas the racist yahoos of the 19th century westward expansion delighted in slaughtering bison from a moving train, in order to deny the native residents a living and to make it easier to clear them from desired land, so Trump has spent his time in the limelight, and in power, blasting away at the things that are central to our culture, to our values, so that he could deny us our cultural and legal core, as he seized all he could grab for himself and those like him.

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Filed under American history, England, History, Non-fiction, World History

Digging for Truth

book cover

I’m here because, for the past ten years. I have been haunted by a murder that took place a few steps away. It was told to me my junior year of college like a ghost story: a young woman, a Harvard graduate student of archaeology, was bludgeoned to death in her off-campus apartment in January 1969. Her body was covered with fur blankets and the killer threw red ochre on her body, a perfect recreation of a burial ritual. No one heard any screams; nothing was stolen. Decades passed, and her case remained unsolved. Unsolved, that is, until yesterday.

“Every nation-state wants an important past,” Karl said. So, often the ruling parties will commission archaeologists. But sometimes the past the archaeologists find is not what the powers want them to find.

In Becky Cooper’s gripping true-crime tale, We Keep the Dead Close, there are two mysteries at work. Who brutally murdered Jane Britton and why, and was Harvard University involved in covering up the murder? If so, did they know who the guilty party was?

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Becky Cooper – from the Boston Globe – photo by Becky Cooper

Ok, so here is how I went about reading the book. In addition to entering into my review file the names of the suspects people connected to the crime, I also kept a running list of the questions I thought needed answering as the book moved along. Here is a sample from reading through page 32:

Questions so far
—–Was Jim H (Jane’s sort-of bf) at her door at 9a as reported by her friends and neighbors, the Mitchells?
—–Where is Jim H now?
—–Who were the two men dashing to a car at 12:30a as reported by neighbor Ravi?
—–Why was Jane’s cat screaming at 8p, and if the place was effectively soundproof how did neighbor Carol Presser hear it?
—–Sounds like the killer was left-handed, given the location of the fatal blow.
—–What’s the deal with the red ochre sprinkled over Jane’s body?

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Jane Britton – image from Wikimedia

I kept a separate list for the question of whether Harvard engaged in a coverup. In a book of over 400 pages you can see how this list might grow. And grow it did, even as I checked off many of the questions when they were answered. But that was one of the major joys of reading this, or, I guess, any true crime book, or fictional crime book for that matter. Seeing if what strikes the author, or the investigators, is also what strikes you, the reader, the rousing of our inner Sherlock. Aside from the mystery, the whodunit of the story, there is content in abundance. For example, how can an institution like Harvard at the very least appear to be involved in covering up a crime, and yet remain unaccountable. Maybe that is not so surprising given that, after lives of diverse forms of crime, the Trump family remains on the spacious side of prison bars. But still, there is, or at least should be, some shock value to this. Did Harvard leadership hide a capital crime, did Harvard obstruct justice for fifty years? Cooper looks at evidence suggesting that it did.

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Professor Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky was a prime suspect in Britton’s murder – image from the NY Post – grad students had accumulated a file on him. One of them died under questionable circumstances.

As noted in the opening quote at top, Cooper had come across this story while an undergraduate at Radcliffe. The professor presumed most likely to have done the deed was still teaching at Harvard. Cooper graduated, moved on, was having a life, but the story stuck with her. Ten years after her undergrad days, she returned to the scene of the crime, as a graduate student, determined to find out the truth of Jane Britton’s death.

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The Dig team in Iran in 1968 – from West Hunter

This is a journey very reminiscent of Michelle McNamara’s amazing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, in which she helped track down the Golden State Killer. Could Cooper do the same? We follow her through the labyrinth of her investigation, talking with everyone who knew Jane at the time of her death, and then branching out to the people who knew the people who knew her. She keeps trying to get access to official police records, a remarkably difficult undertaking for such a cold case, even moreso as Massachusetts is one of the worst states in the nation on Freedom of Information access, and gets in touch with local and state investigators who were involved back then. Suspects get their time in the spotlight, then are replaced with others. Was it one of these, or maybe someone in Jane’s circle who was never thought of as a suspect, or maybe someone else entirely?

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Jane Britton and Ed Franquemont at their college graduation in 1967 – image from Town & Country – source: the Jane Britton Police File – Franquemont, an ex, was universally disliked by Jane’s friends. He may have been physically abusive to her

But there is a whole lot more going on here than a procedural effort to unearth the truth in a nearly fifty-year-old cold case. There is a consideration of historical and all-too-contemporary gender discrimination issues at Harvard, a strong thread about story that permeates, and a subset of that, on rumor as a means of social control.

Cooper documents decades of dismissive treatment of women, not just at Harvard, but in academia well beyond those ivied walls. This manifests in many ways. Women at Harvard in the 1970s learned to dress as sexlessly as possible in order to de-emphasize their gender, lest they be seen as less academically capable than their male clasamates. In the 1980s, women were ushered to positions in the university that were high on administrative duties and low in departmental influence. In 1994 Nancy Hopkins documented the bias against women, showing that only 8 percent of the science faculty at MIT were women, and even lower, 5 percent, at Harvard. In 2005 Hopkins confronted then Harvard president Larry Summers at a conference when he claimed that female under-representation in science faculties was the result of innate biological differences. In the twenty-teens, Associate Professor Kimberly Theidon, was active at Harvard speaking out about sex discrimination and sexual assault, faulting Harvard for its lagging sexual assault policy. When her concerns made it into The Crimson, Harvard’s newspaper, her tenure application, which had already been approved by the authorizing committee, was withdrawn. Behind-closed-door deliberations on tenure decisions shields Harvard from much-needed transparency.

The tenure decision-making process “is an invitation to abuse,” Howard Georgi, a Harvard physicist who has served on tenure committees told Science magazine in 1999. “There’s no question this has affected women.”

The whole notion for the book began, of course, with the story BC heard when she was a Radcliffe undergrad. The police withholding their information made the story of Jane’s death largely oral, and certainly unofficial. And we know from the game Telephone, how stories can change when passed along that way. The file kept by graduate students at Harvard about Karl, with so many elements poorly examined, if researched at all, made that a kind of urban legend. Everybody back at the time of her death had their own experience of Jane and BC tries to make sense of them, learn from their Rashomon-like views the truth of who Jane was. She presents to us a Jane Britton who is not just a body deprived of life, but a three-dimensional person, with a personality, a history, hopes, talents, complications, and ambitions.

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Jane Britton’s boyfriend, Jim Humphries, was also a possible suspect. – image from the NY Post – source: Jane Britton police file

We construct history from the pieces that are available to us. Artifacts, physical objects, letters, photographs, newspaper reports, police reports, spaces that existed then that are still around today. Cooper pursues all she can find, but some will never be unearthed. Sometimes those pieces might lead in opposing directions. Sometimes the pieces might lead nowhere. Sometimes small pieces might hold large truths. Sometimes what seem large pieces hold little explanatory value. Which are the important shards? And which are just detritus? It takes persistence, sensitivity, intelligence, and creativity to make the story we construct of these pieces reflect the truth of the person, the event, or the time we are attempting to describe. Karl Lamberg-Karlovsky’s claim to fame, for example, was not the high academic achievement of his field research. It was his ability to transform the bits he found into a compelling tale. And what about the missing puzzle pieces, the police reports that were kept hidden, the people there in 1968 and 1969 who had died? We can never really know all there is to know. But hopefully we can, with the evidence we are able to gather, get close enough.

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Richard Michael (Mike) Gramly (many years later, obviously) not only knew Jane at the time of her death, but was also on an expedition when another young woman vanished mysteriously – he was known to have serious anger issues

There were rumors bouncing around Jane and her death like neutrons in a nuclear reactor. Many of the people with whom Cooper spoke had a favorite suspect they believed guilty of the crime, offering what they knew or, maybe, had heard or suspected as supporting evidence. Did Ed Franquemont beat her? Was Mike Gramly guilty of maybe two killings? Did Jane have an affair with Karl in Iran? Did Jane threaten to expose a professional lie Karl had told? Did she blackmail him to gain an advantage in her exams, and a place on the next dig? Was Karl a plagiarist? Was Karl a murderer? Did rumors surround him because of his arrogance or because he might be guilty? How about Lee Parsons [sorry, I was unable to find a photo, but Lee is a prime suspect]? Something happened between Lee and Jane at a notorious “Incense Party” at his place. But what? Did Lee confess to killing Jane many years later? In Cooper’s investigative travels she crosses paths with an expert in such things.

As I thought more about [medical anthropologist] Mel [Konner]’s assertion that the rumors were a form of punishment, I found myself reading scholarly work on the social functions of gossip. I eventually worked my way to Chris Boehm, a former classmate of Jane’s who’s studied how gossip works in small-scale societies. He had, in fact, used Jane’s murder as an example in his paper about gossip as a form of social control.


According to Boehm, social groups necessarily have a certain amount of “leakiness“ built in. These are the whisper networks; these are the stories that get swapped in the field and passed quietly between graduate students. Their job is to limit outlier behavior and to keep members of the community safe when what can be said out loud is constrained. Gossip, in other words, is punishment for people who move outside the norms.

There is so much going on here, and it is so accessibly presented that you will be rewarded with much more than the knowledge of who killed Jane Britton. You will learn a lot about Harvard, how academia treats women, how gossip works in the world, and how one might go about solving a very cold case. You may or may not want to read this book in the somewhat OCD manner I pursued, focusing on solving the mystery. That way does add considerably to the reading time, as well as the filling feeling one gets from such activities. But whether you dust off each piece of information as it emerges, or speed through Cooper’s excavation on a mud-spattered Jeep, you will be well rewarded. Once you dig out We Keep the Dead Close from your bookseller’s shelves, you will definitely want to keep it close until you finish reading, exploring, and learning. This is an expedition well worth signing up for.

…the act of interpretation molds the facts in service of the storyteller. I have been burned enough times to know. There are no true stories; there are only facts, and the stories we tell ourselves about those facts.

Review posted – January 8, 2021

Publication dates
———-November 10, 2020 – hardcover
———-September 14, 2021 – trade paperback

I received a copy of the book from Grand Central in return for an honest review, or at least, as honest a review as might be possible given the materials I was able to excavate. Thanks, folks.

And thanks to MC. You know who you are.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, Tumblr, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–This is an EXCELLENT interview – Wellington Square Bookshop – We Keep The Dead Close by Becky Cooper | Author Interview with Sam Hankin – video – 41:15
—–Grand Central Publishing – Becky Cooper & editor Maddie Caldwell in conversation – video – 56:16 – safe to skip the 2:13 intro

Items of Interest
—–Wiki – Murder of Jane Britton
—–WebSleuths.com

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Filed under American history, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, History, Non-fiction, Reviews